The Hidden Danger for Republicans

The GOP’s poll numbers look great. But they shouldn’t interpret them as actual support.

Supporters of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia.
The Americans most likely to vote Republican are also the ones most likely to go to the polls. Above, supporters of Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, at a campaign rally in 2013.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

If elections were won on issues, Democrats would have a bright November ahead of them, since—when it comes to most voters’ concerns—they have the edge over their GOP competitors. In the latest Washington Post poll, Democrats outscore Republicans on the economy, health care, the minimum wage, immigration, the “middle class,” climate change, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Indeed, when asked who they trust to better handle the nation’s problems overall, 40 percent of respondents say Democrats, versus 34 percent who say Republicans.

But elections aren’t won on issues. That voters agree with Democrats doesn’t mean they’ll vote for Democratic candidates. No, when voters go to the polls, they look at two things: the president and the state of the economy. And on both scores, the Democratic Party has reason to worry.

Just 41 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s job performance, an all-time low for the president. Fifty-two percent disapprove. Sixty-six percent say the country is on the wrong track, and 54 percent disapprove of the way Obama is handling the economy. With those numbers, it’s not a surprise that—when asked their preference—53 percent say they want a GOP-led Congress to act as a check on the president’s policies.

None of this is good news, but it’s far from the worst that could happen. At various points in 2012, for instance, Obama’s approval rating was similarly low and the public similarly discontented with his performance and the state of the country.

The big difference, of course, is that Obama’s weakness with the public was balanced by his strength among voters, who were younger, browner, and less affluent than in the previous presidential election. Pushed by this “coalition of the ascendant,” Obama rode to victory, and Democrats bolstered their majority in the Senate.

Unfortunately for Democrats, two things are true this year: First, Obama isn’t on the ballot, and second, those voters are among the least likely to vote in midterm elections. According to the Post, just 55 percent of nonwhites, 53 percent of young people, and 57 percent of people with incomes below $50,000 are “absolutely certain to vote” in November. By contrast, those numbers jump for whites (73 percent), older people (79 percent), and the more affluent (78 percent). In other words, the Americans most likely to vote Republican are also the ones most likely to go to the polls. A fact that, if I were a Democratic strategist, would fill me with panic.

If this holds for the rest of the year—if Democrats can’t boost their turnout to something close to 2012 levels—then Republicans might win another landslide, growing their House majority and capturing the Senate. Indeed, with a wave like that, they could make pickups in Colorado, Michigan, and New Hampshire, where Democrats have an edge that could erode in the face of a GOP-centered electorate.

With that said, if Republicans pick up seats this fall, they should be careful not to overinterpret the gains. If they win a Senate majority, it will have less to do with broad public support for their aims as much as it will stem from the unusual composition of a midterm electorate, where Democratic voters tend to vote every four years and Republican ones every two. In which case, the GOP can’t assume that their midterm message would help in a presidential year.

Which is to say that, if I were a Republican strategist, I would advise my clients to ease up on the anti-Obamacare rhetoric. Yes, it’s useful. For as much as the exchanges are populated and the Medicaid expansion is popular (so much so that GOP candidates aren’t sure how to address it), it’s still true that Republicans are stuck on the “repeal and replace” message, even as majorities reject “repeal” as an option. It’s popular with the base, however, and in elections driven by turnout, that’s a strong advantage.

But Republicans shouldn’t take that as an endorsement. As a whole, the public opposes repeal and doesn’t support the GOP’s scorched-earth approach to the law. If the GOP claims a mandate for their opposition, it risks a repeat of 2011, when it destroyed its standing with voters through a series of stunt votes and standoffs. This didn’t doom its presidential chances the following year, but it was an unnecessary obstacle.

Obviously, a lot can change between now and November, and this week’s poll is no guarantee that Republicans will win a Senate majority. But the odds are in their favor, and if they succeed, they should proceed with caution. Republicans don’t have the public on their side; they have their public, and that makes all the difference.