Mark S. Mellman: Learning from whiplash

As America sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, it suffered from an almost unparalleled case of political whiplash. 

The whiplash was induced by what seems like the most rapid reversal of partisan fortune ever. But Democrats still have something to be thankful for: the Republicans. 

Just a few weeks ago, in the wake of the government shutdown, analysts (myself included) were preoccupied with surveying the wreckage wrought by the GOP. Democratic triumphalism was in full flower. The GOP was more unpopular than it had been at any time in its history — indeed, more unpopular than the Democratic Party had ever been. Not only had the Republican shutdown strategy failed, it was backfiring, as observers began to notice what appeared to be increasing support for ObamaCare.

Then, suddenly, public opinion was jolted in the opposite direction as a cascade of stories about website failures and canceled polices filled the media. Never mind that the Affordable Care Act cannot be reduced to a website, or that only a very small proportion of the population had their policies canceled, or even that Democrats, under the leadership of Sen. Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuCassidy wins reelection in Louisiana Bottom line A decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth MORE (D-La.), quickly brought forward legislation to ensure that people could, in fact, keep policies they like. 

Never mind any of that. The damage was severe, and it was done.

Attitudes toward the healthcare law itself took a dramatic turn for the worse. In November’s Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 49 percent expressed an unfavorable view of the law, while 33 percent offered favorable views. That’s a 6-point decline in favorable views since September and a concomitant 6-point increase in unfavorables. A CBS poll recorded an even steeper rise in negative assessments, with disapproval of the law jumping 10 points since September. 

At the same time, the president’s approval rating hit record lows in almost every major poll. The Huffington Post Pollster’s weighted average shows just 41.5 percent of Americans approving of President Obama’s performance, and 53.4 percent disapproving. RealClear Politics’s simple average suggests slightly lower numbers: 40 percent approving to 55.6 percent disapproving. Every major national poll in November has shown those disapproving of the president’s performance outnumbering those who approve by margins of 13 to 20 points. 

Those watching the generic congressional vote are particularly likely to suffer symptoms of whiplash. Last month, the Fox News poll put Democrats 8 points ahead. Its most recent reading gave Republicans a 3-point advantage. Alas, Fox was not alone. According to Quinnipiac, Democrats enjoyed a 9-point margin in September, but the generic vote is now tied in its data.

The image of the Democratic Party is also deteriorating. Just over a year ago, in September 2012, heading into the last election, favorable views of the Democratic Party outnumbered unfavorables by 7 points in an ABC/Washington Post poll. Today, unfavorables are 3 points higher than favorables. Pollsters measure these party images less frequently, but The Huffington Post Pollster’s averages show Democrats moving from minus 7 and minus 8 in September — that is, unfavorables outnumbering favorables by 7 to 8 points — to minus 11 in November. 

It’s a pretty bleak picture all in all, though things do change. Most voters think the ObamaCare website problems are temporary and that things will improve. It’s a pretty thin silver lining, really. 

But even in this season of distress, Democrats can be thankful for Republicans, who can seemingly be counted on to make an even bigger mess of themselves than we make of ourselves. While 50 percent have unfavorable views of Democrats in The Huffington Post Pollster’s averages, 61 percent harbor unfavorable views of the Republican Party. Put differently, while Democrats are minus 11 in those averages, Republicans are a whopping minus 35. As poorly as Democrats are regarded, the GOP is far worse off. 

The Democratic Party can turn things around by improving performance. The Republican Party, however, will have a much harder time improving its standing.  


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.