Feb. 6, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

District Polls Are Troubling Signs for Democrats

While serious Democratic observers worry whether their party can somehow hang on to 218 seats in the House, more than a few Republican strategists and neutral observers have become convinced that the GOP is on the cusp of a stunning victory that could at least equal the party’s 52-seat 1994 gain.

Not only have Democrats been unable to change the trajectory of the midterms, but the last few months have served to solidify and strengthen the GOP’s prospects.

The economy is weakening, not strengthening, and the jobs outlook is as bad as it has been in months. The controversy over the building of a mosque/community center near ground zero didn’t enhance President Barack Obama’s reputation, and the upcoming trials of Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) could further embarrass the Democratic Party.

The only good news for the White House is the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq and the beginning of Mideast peace talks. But those issues simply aren’t as salient to most voters as the economy.

The Democratic strategy for minimizing losses remains twofold. First, make the midterm elections a choice between the two parties rather than a referendum on Obama, and second, demonize Republican challengers, thereby making them unacceptable to voters.

The “choice” strategy is appropriate but not likely to succeed. Republicans tried the same strategy in 2006, and it didn’t work. It rarely does if voters are in a foul mood.

The “demonize the Republican nominee” strategy has greater potential, but it requires a costly race-by-race effort that depends on a number of factors, including district demographics and partisanship, the quality of the Democratic candidate, and the baggage carried by both nominees. The approach might save a few Democrats, but it isn’t likely to be widely successful.

Republican enthusiasm is high and almost certainly will remain so until November. Independent voters continue to resemble Republicans more than Democrats attitudinally, and that isn’t likely to change before Election Day, because independents are particularly sensitive to mood.

Together, those two realities guarantee a big Republican midterm election. But it is the possibility of significantly depressed Democratic turnout that creates the potential of a massive Republican year, with House gains comfortably above 50 seats and Senate gains approaching 10 seats.

In other words, unlike a year ago, suggestions that November could be “another 1994” are now entirely reasonable.

All of the national polling numbers, from Obama’s job approval rating to the generic Congressional ballot and the right direction/wrong track question, combined with the number of seats held by Democrats, now suggest Republican House gains in excess of 40 seats.

But my overall assessment of each cycle is always based, in part, on individual contests and district-level polling, not just national numbers.

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