With the advent of this election year, the time to turn from generalities/playing field pieces to tracking specific races is fast approaching. But before picking up my series on competitive Senate races (I wrote on three with relatively well-formed dynamics last year: Kentucky, Montana, and Arkansas), I do have a few more things to say about the playing field.
As a general matter, the journalistic narrative hasn’t yet caught up with the deterioration of the Democrats’ political standing since the early summer. Polls showing tight Senate races in New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado and Michigan are met with surprise and disbelief. But they are exactly what we’d expect to see given the president’s national job approval rating. I think they’re accurate barometers of the state of the races.
I noted at the end of last year that the Senate playing field in 2014 is substantially worse for Democrats than it was in 2010. If Democrats ultimately suffer losses in marginal seats at the rate they did in 2010, we’d expect them to lose nine to 10 seats. This time, I’m going to take a slightly different tack, and look at these races from the point of view of the president’s job approval.
It’s no secret that I think elections are largely referenda on the party in power. Jay Cost noted in late 2011 that the state-by-state outcomes in the 2004 election corresponded heavily to President Bush’s job approval in the state as measured by exit polls. Bush lost only four states where his job approval was positive, and won zero states where his job approval was negative. Going back to 1972, incumbents rarely win the votes of those who do not approve of them.