It wasn’t too long ago that the Democrats seemed poised to make gains in next year’s midterm elections. Some even thought it was plausible that Democrats could retake the House, despite the GOP’s enormous structural advantages. But a mere 33 days since the government shutdown ended, the Democratic “wave” has subsided—and it’s unclear what comes next.
Several new surveys show that the Democratic advantage on the generic congressional ballot—the one that emerged during the shutdown—has faded or even evaporated. The three live interview surveys conducted more than two weeks after the shutdown show a dead heat, with the Republicans gaining an average of a net-5 points over the previous survey. Fox News, the newest poll, even shows the Republicans ahead by three points among registered voters.
A “dead heat” among registered voters all but ends Democratic hopes of retaking the House, notwithstanding another political earthquake. They might not even gain seats, since Democrats hold more vulnerable districts than Republicans. Democrats hold 10 districts with a Cook PVI of R+2 or greater—the districts where, historically, the challenging party beats incumbents at a decent clip during “wave” elections, while there are only two Republicans holding districts with a PVI of D+2 or greater. There are even four Democrats in districts with a Cook PVI of R+7 or greater; there’s no Republican in a seat so Democratic. And historically, we would expect the combination of the president’s faltering approval rating and an off-year to make it very difficult for the president’s party to hold seats.
Instead the Senate reemerges as the real battleground. The Democrats probably remain favored to retain the chamber, as Republicans need an inside straight of sorts to gain six seats, but it’s hard to be sure. Thanks to the growing cost of public polling and struggling newspapers, there just isn’t much non-partisan, live-interview polling in states like North Carolina, Alaska, Louisiana, and Arkansas. With the exception of Arkansas, my hunch is that these states at least "tilt" Democratic, but that's a low confidence hunch.
In a more neutral environment, Democrats could probably avoid losing three of those four seats. Incumbency is pretty powerful and the Republicans don't have a great record of converting opportunities into Senate gains over recent cycles. But if the president's approval ratings remain in the upper-thirties, it's not hard to imagine red state, incumbent Democrats becoming extremely vulnerable. And if the environment remains bad for Democrats, Republicans could start “expanding the map” in states like Michigan or Iowa, or perhaps even elsewhere.
But it would be foolish to assume that the environment will remain this bad for Democrats, just as it was wrong to assume that the GOP was doomed by the shutdown. Frustration will probably subside if and when Obamacare gets up and running. Frustration could even turn into a bit of renewed support if the president benefits from lowered expectations. In the end, the public has a short memory. So, apparently, do most commentators, who have forgotten that they were frothing about the end of the Republican Party as recently as three weeks ago.
So the website probably isn't Obama's Katrina. Then again, I don’t really view Katrina as “Bush’s Katrina" either, at least not in the sense that it was the turning point for his presidency. After all, Bush’s approval ratings steadily declined in 2005, long before Hurricane Katrina, and they continued to decline afterwards. Iraq, a weak economy, recurring allegations of Republican corruption, Social Security privatization, immigration reform, gas prices, and even minor incidences like the Dubai ports debacle conspired to hold Bush’s approval rating down in the mid-thirties. And let's not kid ourselves: the American people unconditionally expect prompt and effective disaster relief. They'll be more forgiving of the rollout for an extremely complicated program, if things work out in the end.
At this point, elections watchers can only wait. We’ll see whether the website gets turned around, whether people sign up, and whether the press ultimately says “hey, this turned out alright.” If it does, the president will probably have an opportunity to recover. And then, we'll see whether the economy and other events allow him to do so.