No Guarantee Democrats Rebound in 2016

by Nathan L. Gonzales November 14, 2014 · 9:47 AM EST

After suffering heavy losses in the House and the Senate in the recent midterm elections, some congressional Democrats may breathe a sigh of relief now that President Barack Obama is entering his final two years in office.

But the approaching end of the Obama Administration doesn’t mean Obama won’t be a factor in 2016 and, figuratively, on the ballot, again.

In 2006, Republicans lost 31 House seats and six Senate seats, as well as majorities in both chambers. GOP strategists understood voters were sending their party a message. But they also took some solace that unpopular President George W. Bush was in the twilight of his tenure and wouldn’t be on the ballot again.

They were wrong.

In two years between the 2006 midterm elections and the 2008 presidential election, Bush’s job approval rating dipped even lower. His job rating went from 39 percent approve/57 percent disapprove in a NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey at the end of Oct. 2006 to 26 percent approve/67 percent disapprove in an early Nov. NBC/WSJ poll in 2008.

Congressional Democrats and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama ran against Bush again in 2008 and Republicans lost another 21 House seats and eight more Senate seats. It didn’t matter President Bush wasn’t actually on the ballot and wouldn’t be in office the following year. Democratic candidates ran against him anyway. Bush’s low standing primed the country for more Democrats, even though they already controlled the House and Senate.

There is significant risk for Democrats that Obama and his policies will be on the ballot again in 2016.

President Obama’s job rating sat at 42 percent approve/52 percent disapprove in this year’s final, pre-election NBC/WSJ survey. His job rating was actually slightly higher in the National Exit Poll (44 percent) but was slightly lower in swing states with competitive Senate races including Colorado (42 percent), Iowa (39 percent) and North Carolina (43 percent).

There are obviously rebuttals to the notion the 2016 elections will have anything to do with Obama. Whether Democrats nominate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or someone else, that nominee will be her (or his) own person, and Democrats will have the opportunity to run against a Republican-controlled Congress.

But those arguments existed in 2008. No one would mistake GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona for President Bush. Like Obama and Clinton, the two men ran against each other eight years earlier, and they had very different styles and priorities.

Republicans tried to run against Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2008, but it didn’t work. Instead, President Bush’s shadow fell over the entire political landscape.

For Democrats, the good news is that it’s absolutely true that Republicans will start off on the defensive in 2016. The Red-State Democrat dynamic that plagued Democrats this cycle will challenge Blue-State Republicans next cycle.

But it will be easier for vulnerable GOP congressional incumbents to survive in 2016 if they have an unpopular president to run against. The last five presidents have seen their job approval rating dip from their final midterm to their final months in office, according to Jim Hobart, a vice president at Republican polling giant Public Opinion Strategies. And Democrats are digging themselves into a significant hole this year which could require a net gain of four or five Senate seats, depending on which party wins the next presidential contest.

The Republican path to the White House remains narrow, as explained most recently by Nate Cohn of The New York Times. But as he and Yahoo’s Matt Bai wrote, there is a significant question as to whether the successful 2008 and 2012 Obama coalitions are exclusive to Obama and able to be re-created by other candidates.

So with all the analysis about the 2016 map, demographic changes and the presidential contenders, keeping an eye on Obama’s job approval rating is still a worthy endeavor.