Obama Beats Congressional GOP on Virtually Every Issue

From the latest Newsweek poll, which shows President Obama's approval rating down 9 percentage points from July to a low of 48 percent:

Forty-six percent of Americans prefer Obama's handling of the economy, compared to 30 percent who say the Republicans have a better approach. Similar gaps persist on job creation, tax policy, the federal budget deficit, and the handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only issue where Americans say Republicans in Congress are doing better than the president is on the use of military courts vs. civilian trials for terrorism suspects. Thirty-eight percent prefer the GOP approach while 34 percent prefer Obama's.

These numbers aren't entirely rosy for the White House or its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill -- but they also belie the notion that the Democrats are sunk in November. No matter what the prognosticators inside the Beltway tell you, the Republican Party remains a terribly damaged brand, one in which the American people appear quite unwilling to embrace even as they become less endeared of Barack Obama.

It is true that these numbers do not represent a head-to-head between the Democrats on Capitol Hill and Congressional Republicans -- let alone the multitude of individual candidate races that will determine control of the House and Senate in November. Nevertheless, it is simply not yet clear that the Republican Party is anywhere close to sealing the deal with voters, who still prefer President Obama's approach to the failed ideology of George W. Bush and his ilk in the GOP leadership.

A State of the Union Bounce?

It's still too soon to gauge whether or not Barack Obama received a lasting bounce from his State of the Union address last week -- but we are beginning to get an indication that he has received a short-term-bounce, at the least.

In Gallup polling in the field from January 25 through 27, the last survey in the field almost entirely before Barack Obama's speech, the President's approval rating stood at 47 percent -- matching an all-time low in the poll -- with 46 percent disapproving. 

Today's numbers from Gallup are significantly more bullish for the President. In polling in the field January 30 through February 1, Barack Obama's approval rating is up a net 8 percentage points from before the State of the Union Address, with 51 percent approving and 42 percent disapproving. 

These numbers are volatile, and yet preliminary. But at this point, it appears that President Obama has seen positive movement out of his speech last week.

What if 2010 is Like 1982?

I want to loop back and write a little bit more about something I touched on earlier this week: That if the 2010 midterms look like the 1982 midterms -- which isn't inconceivable considering that Barack Obama's approval rating today looks a lot like Ronald Reagan's did at the same point in the 1982 cycle -- it wouldn't be terrible news for the Democrats.

Chuck Todd, among others, has written that close Senate elections in a given year don't tend to split evenly between the two parties, but rather that one party manages to win virtually all the close races. "Check out the competitive races from the last five cycles," Todd writes. "It's a remarkable pattern."

Todd is largely right -- close Senate elections do tend to break in one party's favor. In 2008, Democrats won seven of the eight contests decided by fewer than 10 percentage points; in 2006, they won five of seven; in 2000, they won seven of 10; and in 2004, Republicans won seven of eight such races. (The 2002 elections, when the Republicans won six of ten single-digit elections, is somewhat of an exception to this general rule).

But it's worth looking back to the 1982 midterm elections to bear out an exceedingly important point that is overlooked when reciting the general rule that close Senate elections tend to break in a particular party's favor: The party winning the close elections isn't necessarily the one you might expect.

The 1982 midterm elections saw a whopping 11 Senate elections decided by fewer than 10 percentage points. Considering that Ronald Reagan's approval rating lagged at 43 percent and that the economy, while improving, was still in the doldrums, one might have expected most of these races to have broken in favor of the opposition Democrats. Indeed, in House elections that year, the Democrats were able to capitalize, picking up a net 26 seats.

Yet come election day, the races didn't break overwhelmingly in the Democrats' favor. In fact, the opposite occurred, with Reagan's Republicans winning nine of 11 single-digit Senate elections. Take a look:

Republican WinDemocratic Win
California: Pete Wilson 51.5/Jerry Brown 44.8New Jersey: Frank Lautenberg 50.9/Millicent Fenwich 47.8
Connecticut: Lowell Weicker 50.4/Toby Moffett 46.1New Mexico: Jeff Bingaman 53.8/Harrison Schmitt 46.2
Indiana: Richard Lugar 53.8/Floyd Fithian 45.6
Minnesota: Dave Durenberger 52.6/Mark Dayton 46.6
Missouri: John Danforth 50.8/Harriet Woods 49.1
Nevada: Chic Hecht 50.1/Howard Cannon 47.7
Rhode Island: John Chafee 51.2/Julius Michaelson 48.8
Vermont: Robert Stafford 50.3/James Guest 47.2
Virginia: Paul trible 51.2/Richard Joseph Davis 48.8

Going into November 1982, there was little reason to believe that the close races would swing for the GOP. The Democrats had strong candidates in most of these states -- a Governor, Jerry Brown; an elected state Attorney General, Julius Michaelson; an elected Lieutenant Governor, Richard Joseph Davis; an elected Secretary of State, James Guest; and multiple-term Congressmen Toby Moffett and Floyd Fithian. Reagan's numbers, as noted above, were in the tank, and the economy was still weak.

But the races mostly swung away from the opposition Democrats. After all the dust settled, the Senate remained firmly in control of the Republicans.

So close Senate races do tend to trend towards one party in a particular cycle, though not every year (see: 2002). When they do, it's not always to the party you might expect. Sometimes this trend can actually help the party in power, even when that party is headed by a President with an approval rating in the low-40s at a time when the economy is still weaker than expected.

What Has the GOP Done for America?

According to top GOP strategist Todd Harris, not a whole lot:

H/T to Huffington Post for making this catch.

The prognosticators are right that swing elections tend to be about the party in power more than the party out of power -- but they can overstate that point, too. To take an example I wrote about yesterday, although Ronald Reagan's approval rating was in the dumps in 1982 (about 43 percent at the time of election day) the Democrats weren't completely able to capitalize as the party in opposition, picking up a more modest 26 House seats (as compared with shifts of 47, 48 and 52 in 1966, 1974 and 1994, respectively) and just a single Senate seat. Just two years removed from a Carter presidency, voters simply were not as quick to embrace the Democrats as they might have otherwise been. This fall, just two years removed from the George W. Bush presidency, will voters really be much quicker to embrace the GOP?

Obama 2010 Approval Looks Like Reagan's in 1982

From Gallup:

Surmises Gallup: "Still, Obama's initial approval rating in his second year as president is among the lowest for elected presidents since Dwight Eisenhower. Only Ronald Reagan -- who, like Obama, took office during challenging economic times -- began his second year in office with a lower approval score (49%). However, Obama's disapproval rating is slightly higher than Reagan's was (44% vs. 40%)."

How bad would Ronald Reagan-like electoral results be for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party? In the 1982 midterm elections, which landed at the same point in the Reagan presidency as the 2010 midterms will land in Barack Obama's, Republicans lost 26 seats in the House but had no net loss in the Senate -- a bad, but not terrible showing. Should 2010 be for the President Obama and the Democrats anything like 1982 was for President Reagan and the Republicans, the Democrats would hold on to both the House and Senate with still fairly robust majorities (though narrower than they had before).

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