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The Politics of Sequestration: More Nuanced Than You Think

The Politics of Sequestration: More Nuanced Than You Think

By Sean Trende - March 1, 2013

The predominant view in Washington seems to be that the GOP is headed for a public relations drubbing on the sequester. Numerous commentators have noted that President Obama is more popular than Republicans, and a recent Pew poll -- buttressed by others -- suggests that voters would blame Republicans for disruptive federal budget cuts more than the president.

The first hint that these attitudes might not be the final word on the subject are contained in the same survey data, however: Many Americans have no objection to letting the sequester-mandated budget cuts go into effect.

Moreover, since a majority of Republicans are ensconced in fairly safe districts, and since the midterm election is much more likely to be a referendum on the president than on the Republicans, this battle shapes up as one quite different from the fiscal cliff fight from the end of 2012. Here are three major reasons why.

The public’s mood is complicated. For all the talk of the American people being on the president’s side, the state of public attitudes is not so simple. Take the Pew poll, which is frequently cited as evidence that the American people favor the president’s “balanced approach.”

In truth, they are somewhere between the president and Republicans; while 76 percent favor a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, 54 percent favor tilting the deficit reduction toward spending cuts, a view that is somewhere between the 50/50 suggestion of the president and the 100 percent spending cuts suggested by Republicans.

While people trust the president more than congressional Republicans when it comes to reducing the deficit, it is only by seven points (see point No. 2 below), and less than a majority embraces him. And while 49 percent would blame Republicans for the sequestration cuts going into effect vs. 31 percent blaming the president, that can also be interpreted as a majority for the category of blaming the president or “a pox on both your houses.” For that matter, some of those who opted for “blame Republicans” could be choosing that as the default option for “blame is the wrong word since I think these cuts are a good thing.”

This last option is especially intriguing given some responses in the most recent Fox News poll (which isn’t done by Fox News, but rather is a joint effort between Republican and Democratic polling firms). There, 49 percent of respondents said they thought the sequestration cuts would either have positive effects or no real effects on the economy, and 57 percent said that automatic spending cuts were necessary because Washington was incapable of getting the deficit under control through other means.

This ambiguity is even more obvious when one places the numbers in historical context. Consider the most recent NBC/WSJ poll. It finds Democrats with a two-point advantage on “dealing with the economy,” which is about where it has been for much of the past two decades; their advantage is far less than it was in 2005-2008, when it was typically in double digits. Indeed, it is less than it was even during 2004, when Democrats had an eight-point advantage and Republicans had arguably their best top-to-bottom win since 1928. On “reducing the federal deficit,” Republicans receive a six-point edge, and a 16-point edge on “controlling government spending”; in July 2007, Democrats had 25-point and 16-point advantages in those two categories, respectively.

And while the GOP itself isn’t that popular overall, the president himself boasts of only tepid job approval ratings, which are also in decline. The RCP Average presently pegs his numbers at 50.3 percent approve, 43.4 percent disapprove, for a net +7 approval rating. The job approval polls have now mostly reverted back to polls of all adults (see the spike in the president’s job approval around Dec. 5), which suggests that among the actual national electorate, it is probably a few points lower.

Remember too that an advantage over the opposing party isn’t that indicative of where things will end up in the ensuing election. In mid-October 2010, for example, NBC/WSJ found that 48 percent of Americans had a very positive or somewhat positive opinion of the president, 38 percent had a very or somewhat positive opinion of the Democratic Party, and only 31 percent had a favorable opinion of Republicans. If you recall, things went well that November for Republicans. For sake of comparison, today those numbers are 49 percent, 41 percent and 29 percent, an insignificant difference.

In the places that matter for 2014, public opinion probably leans Republican. If we had truly national elections, Republicans could be in for rough sailing. But we don’t. This is critical to remember when trying to figure out likely winners and losers in the next two years. When you consider the polls in light of what is going on at the sub-national level, the GOP’s stance makes perfect sense. Remember, these members are ultimately responsible to their constituents, and their constituents are much more conservative than the country as a whole.

As a result of gerrymandering and the increased concentration of the Democrats’ coalition, estimates from DailyKos Elections suggest that Mitt Romney bested Obama in 226 congressional districts, and that 217 House Republicans hail from districts Romney won. In other words, a majority of House members represent constituencies that voted for their party’s nominee. The upshot is that the president’s job approval in even the most Democratic of these “Romney districts” is almost certainly under 50 percent with adults and is likely upside-down with the electorate.

Moreover, the median Republican hails from a district that gave Romney 57.9 percent of the vote, about 11 points more than his national average. The president’s approval-unapproval ratings in these areas are likely to be upside down. In other words, even if we concede that the country as a whole supports the president’s approach, a majority of the majority is responsible to electorates that do not.

The Senate picture is even more vivid. Only one Republican senator up for re-election in 2014, Susan Collins of Maine, hails from a state Obama carried in 2012. Indeed, there’s only one other seat, the one in Georgia, where the president received as much as 45 percent of the vote. The rest of the Republican caucus isn’t up for re-election until 2016 at the earliest; three-and-a-half years is a lifetime in politics. There are also five Democratic senators up for re-election from states where the president failed to reach 45 percent of the vote in 2012.

Overall, sequester probably works to Republicans’ benefit in 2014. Taken together, these factors suggest that no one is really coming out of this fight looking particularly strong. But Republicans have an advantage in that the congressional playing field is tilted to their advantage, meaning that even losses in the court of public opinion can work to their advantage so long as they are not massive.

Republicans have a larger advantage, in that a “pox on both their houses” result helps them. Recall that a majority of the American people are willing to cast at least some blame on the president for the sequester cuts. Remember also that in October of 2010, the president had a 17-point favorability edge over the GOP, and Democrats had a seven-point edge.

The reason this matters so much is that elections are referenda on the party in power. This is true of presidential elections -- the real reason Barack Obama won in 2012 is that his job approval was 54 percent among the electorate that showed up to vote -- and it is true of congressional elections as well.

Consider the following chart, which shows the president’s job approval in the final Gallup Poll before a midterm election on the horizontal axis, and the number of seats his party lost on the vertical axis:

The correlation is unmistakable. We could refine it further with data on the economy and exposed seats, or by looking at percentage of seats lost rather than raw numbers. But the bottom line is that no president with a sub-50 approval rating has ever avoided losing at least 15 seats in the House in a midterm election; indeed you have to get to the high 50s before you start to see single seat losses occur with regularity.

Of course, the past is not always prologue; this time could be different. The politics could shift once the actual cuts kick in: The president might see his standing rise, as it eventually did for Bill Clinton in the wake of the government shutdown fight of 1995-96. A million other events could intervene between now and 2014.

But the overall picture is this: The president’s hand here might be stronger relative to the Republicans, but it isn’t particularly strong in absolute terms, and it is the president’s hand that really matters for elections. That’s something that should worry Democrats more than it appears to. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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