Joseph Napolitan, who essentially created the profession of campaign consultant and who departed these earthly precincts this past December, was a wise man.
He used to tell Democratic candidates and officeholders whom he counseled “to never underestimate the intelligence of the voters, nor overestimate the amount of knowledge at their disposal.” His point was that it was the candidate’s and the campaign’s responsibility to inform and educate voters, and that if by Election Day “the voters still do not understand what the candidate is trying to tell them, then it is the candidate’s fault — not the voters’.”
That is as true today as it was when Napolitan wrote it more than 50 years ago.
Another timeless rule of Napolitan’s is particularly sobering for Democratic candidates in the spring of 2014: “Do not underestimate the impact of an unpopular national administration.” Here’s how he put it: “Assuming the merits of the candidates are about equal, if you represent the party of an unpopular administration, you probably will lose.”
Some seven months before Election Day, the political indicators are not encouraging for Democrats. First, the answer to one question — “Do you think things in the nation are generally headed in the right direction, or do you feel things are off on the wrong track?” — essentially provides an EKG of the American body politic. The past dozen years of failing U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the widespread pain and sense of betrayal inflicted by the financial crisis depleted Americans’ historic optimism.
Five years ago, in April 2009, American voters were evenly split, with 43 percent seeing their nation “generally headed in the right direction” and 43 percent feeling “things are off on the wrong track,” according to the respected Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll. In the most recent survey, just 26 percent of Americans answer “right direction,” while 65 percent say “wrong track.” In that same poll, only 41 percent of voters approved of the job President Barack Obama was doing, while 54 percent disapproved.
Here’s the dirty little secret that keeps Democrats up at night: Any president’s job rating generally cannot rise more than 15 percent above the nation’s right-direction-wrong-track number. Thus, as long as voters remain so disappointed and discouraged about the direction of the United States, then Obama’s job rating will remain stuck in negative territory, and Democratic candidates in November will understandably fear “the impact of an unpopular administration.”
Pessimism follows bad numbers. Last week’s CBS News poll reflected just that by measuring the enthusiasm of voters in the two parties and finding 70 percent of Republican voters enthusiastic about voting next November, while just 58 percent of Democratic voters described themselves as enthusiastic about the 2014 election. You only count in American elections if you actually do vote. If real estate is all about location, location, location, then elections are all about turnout, turnout, turnout.
One consistent result that lifts the spirits of beleaguered Democrats is the continuing unpopularity of the Republican Party. Not that the Democrats are widely revered; they’re not. Still, Democrats' positive rating of 35 percent contrasted to their unfavorable rating of 38 percent looks awfully good when compared to the GOP’s 27 percent positive rating to 45 percent negative (which on the lists of 10 institutions and individuals, including labor unions, puts the Republican Party ahead of only Vladimir Putin).
It’s true that a week can be a lifetime in politics, and six months can be an eternity. But for Democrats, with seven months to go, the 2014 road, as of now, is straight uphill.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.