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In Obama's shadow – prospects for November US midterm elections

Published:Tuesday | November 4, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Lawrence A. Powell, Columnist

Americans will today hold their midterm elections – choosing members of the House and Senate, and state governors. The run-up to these contests has seen a wholesale abandonment of Barack Obama by many of the prospective candidates, as if he had the Ebola virus and needed to be quarantined politically.

At a recent appearance in support of Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown, audience members heckled the president, some holding up signs, while others began leaving the auditorium early, as soon as he began speaking.
What has happened? Spectacularly popular during his historic 2008 presidential run and during his first year, Obama has steadily declined in popularity since the divisive 2009 national health-care insurance fight, and the disastrous 2010 midterm elections in which the Tea Party became a new reactionary force to be reckoned with in US politics. Approval ratings in the 70s and 80s during Obama's first year have plummeted to about 40 per cent in most recent surveys.

Obama managed to squeak by and get re-elected in 2012, running against an unpopular Mitt Romney, but there's been a further erosion of his image and credibility since then. This year, Democratic Party midterm candidates for Senate, House and governorships are scrambling to distance themselves from Obama, keeping him at arms’ length from their campaigns as if he had become politically toxic to their futures. In fact, more candidates have been seen in the company of Bill Clinton this year than the current president.

The most recent figures from Nate Silver's Seven Thirty Eight report (a sophisticated probability simulation of the election, based on averaged polls) do not look good for Democrats keeping their present 55-45 Senate leverage during Obama's final two years. In the all-important Senate races, Democrats have only a 38 per cent chance of keeping their majority, whereas Republicans have a 62 per cent chance of winning a majority. The most likely predicted outcome is that Republicans will control 52 Senate seats, and Democrats will control 48.

In US midterm elections, the voters tend to be older and whiter than in presidential elections, and turnout is lower – all of which typically works to the advantage of Republican candidates. Of the closely-contested swing-state races this year, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, and South Dakota are likely to go to Republicans. Michigan, New Hampshire and North Carolina will probably go to Democrats. Kansas and Georgia remain too close to predict.

In the 2014 House races (where Republicans already hold a majority), Real Clear Politics is predicting 183 Democrats, and 228 Republicans, with 24 races still too close to predict. Venturing educated guesses on those close races, the Washington Post suggests that there will be 193 Democrats and 242 Republicans. Since the current House has 199 Democrats, 233 Republicans and three vacancies, neither of these predictions really represents a dramatic shift, just further erosion of Democratic seats.
In the governor's races, in the states, Republicans find themselves defending 22 seats this year, compared with just 14 for Democrats. At present, there are 29 Republican governorships, so they would be doing well simply to preserve that party advantage (out of 50 states). A few governor’s mansions could possibly switch sides, but major shifts are unlikely here. Real Clear Politics has 16 of these leaning Democratic, 22 leaning Republican, with 12 toss-ups. Republicans are poised to spring upsets in Colorado, Connecticut and Massachusetts, but Democrats could also turn over Georgia and Kansas. 

Stepping back to look at the overall pattern, all of this seems to point to what in American politics is called lame-duck syndrome – in which second-term presidents sometimes find themselves written off as passé and their imperatives increasingly ignored.  
If this midterm goes as it appears it will, Obama may well spend his final two years with few options left, other than to use his veto power to fend off hostile legislative threats from the Republican-controlled House, and a newly Republican-controlled Senate, not to mention a right-leaning Supreme Court that has not exactly been friendly to Democrats' preferred policies of late.
Lawrence Alfred Powell is research mentor for the Faculty of Culture & Society at Auckland University of Technology, in New Zealand, and the former polling director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance at UWI, Mona.

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