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In New Poll, ‘Sobering’ News for Both Parties on Midterm Elections

Battleground pollsters report Democrats and Republicans are ‘universally despised’—but marijuana referendums might boost voter turnout in November.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Countering a wave of speculation that Republicans will make big gains in November, GOP pollster Ed Goeas cautions that the midterm elections still have the potential to be “highly competitive,” an assessment echoed by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who says both political parties are “universally despised” by the voters. “If we do our job right, it could be more of an anti-incumbent year,” rather than an anti-Democratic year, she told reporters as she and Goeas released their latest Battleground poll (PDF) on the state of the two parties as they jockey for position heading into the midterm elections.

President Obama’s weak job-approval rating of 43 percent is a drag on his party, but Democrats hold the advantage over Republicans in key areas related to the middle class and have double-digit leads when it comes to protecting Social Security and Medicare. On the downside, the Democrats’ overriding weakness in turning out their vote in an off-year election is “reminiscent of 2010,” when a smaller, whiter, and older electorate elected a Republican House. The intensity that voters feel is what drives them to the polls, and Democrats typically lag behind Republicans by 10 or 15 points in the midterms. The Battleground poll measures the current intensity gap at 17 points. “Pretty sobering,” Lake said.

To boost turnout for Democrats, Lake advocates a “more muscular approach to the economy” even if Obama can’t get anything through Congress. “You can’t pass it but you can lay it out,” she said. “Republicans would like Obama to be up for reelection, but he’s not; Congress is up for reelection.” A bolder agenda from Obama that puts Congress on the defensive would highlight that distinction. Goeas countered that “Obama’s name is not on the ballot, but his policies are,” and Republicans are framing the fall election as a referendum on Obamacare.

The two pollsters sparred over their analysis of the data they commissioned together, sharing the numbers with reporters over a breakfast Tuesday sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. Goeas said he “almost fell off the chair” when he heard Obama say in a speech last week in Miami that the American electorate agrees with the Democrats on every issue. Republicans are favored in the Battleground poll on the economy, the federal budget and taxes, and voters trust them more on foreign policy, an attribute that bodes well for 2016.

An attempt to rally Democrats by demonizing the billionaire Koch brothers turns out to be a flop, with 52 percent of voters not knowing who the two men are. “You always want to have some red meat to feed your base,” says Goeas, likening the Democratic effort to expose Charles and David Koch to what Republicans tried to do in several election cycles with George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who supports Democratic causes. Lake countered that in some states, like North Carolina and Colorado, where Koch-sponsored ads attacking the Affordable Care Act used paid actors, Democrats have made some headway in singling out their tactics.

“The untold story of this election,” she said, is that moderate Republicans are not getting knocked out by Tea Party candidates. All they have to say is “I hate Obamacare.” “Obamacare is providing some protection for Republicans,” she said. Lake counsels Democrats on Obamacare, “Don’t defend it—fix it.” She cites Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu as the model for that approach. Democrats should remind people of the past abuses of the insurance industry, and assure voters that “We’re not going back to the days of leaving you on your own with insurance companies.”

Voters overall are pretty pessimistic, but there has been some modest improvement in people’s attitudes. While three-quarters of voters (76 percent) in the survey disagreed with the assertion that the next generation will be better off economically, there has been a 9 percentage-point decrease in the number of people who say the nation is on the wrong track, from 73 percent in November of last year to 64 percent in the current poll.

One area where there is a great deal of interest, maybe even optimism, is the prospect of changing marijuana laws. Thirty-nine percent of surveyed voters said they would be more likely to turn out to vote if legalization of marijuana was on the ballot; an additional 30 percent said they would be somewhat more likely to vote.

A question ranking the 2016 presidential contenders found Hillary Clinton well ahead with 54 percent approval among likely voters; Vice President Joe Biden is second with 44 percent. On the Republican side, Sen. Rand Paul leads the pack at 38 percent approval with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush close behind with 36 percent, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 34 percent. Goeas said he thinks the fact that Clinton is doing so well increases the likelihood that Bush will enter the race. He reasons that the “too many Bushes” argument is neutralized when it becomes “two very powerful political families going up against each other.” Two years ago, Gov. Bush was saying no to entreaties that he run, and now must be looking at it very seriously, Goeas said. “It opens the door for him.”