Dan Balz

By Dan Balz, Chief correspondent
October 4, 2014 at 4:32 PM

It has become commonplace to describe the midterm political contests as the Seinfeld election — a campaign about nothing. In fact, that’s not correct. This is an election that is still very much about how people view President Obama.

Two years after winning reelection, Obama is a muted force on the campaign trail — to the extent that he is even on the campaign trail. He is limited in where he can travel, constrained in how he speaks about what has been one of the biggest issues of his presidency — the economy — and struggling to ignite the passions of the Democratic base in a year when turnout is so critical.

Doug Rivers, a Stanford University professor and one of the pioneers of Internet-based polling, offered a succinct description of this campaign year at a conference hosted by the Hoover Institution last week. “There is no overriding issue other than that Republicans don’t like Obama and Democrats are lukewarm about Obama,” he said.

The Gallup organization produced a fresh analysis on Friday that underscores that point. Many more registered voters see this election as a way to register disapproval of the president as those who say they want to use their vote to offer a sign of support. What Gallup called the “Obama factor” is every bit as big as it was in 2010 and split almost identically pro and con.

In the latest numbers, 32 percent of registered voters said their choice of candidate in November would be a way to send a message of opposition to the president, while 20 percent said it would be a way to send a message of support. The remainder said their choice of candidates would not be a way to send any message about the president.

The 12-point difference is comparable to what it was four years ago, when Republicans made historic gains in the House. In 2010, 30 percent of registered voters said they would send a message of opposition to Obama, and 22 percent said they would vote to send a message of support for the president.

The Gallup numbers also reinforce what Rivers said about the passions of Republicans and tepidness of Democrats. Among Republicans, 58 percent said they would be sending a message of opposition to the president, while just 38 percent of Democrats said they would use the election to send a message of support for Obama. That Democratic number is lower by 7 percentage points than it was in 2010.

Gallup began asking this question in 1998. In that midterm election and in 2002, there were more registered voters who said they would send a message of support for the sitting president than opposition — Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002. In both cases, the president’s party actually gained seats in midterm elections, defying historical trends.

Today, Obama looks more like Bush of 2006, when Democrats took back the House: The numbers for Obama are almost identical overall, and the breakdowns by party are as well.

There is ample evidence of the box in which Obama and the Democrats find themselves, including the latest statistics on the economy. On Friday, the Labor Department said that the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.9 percent, the first time since the economic collapse of 2008 that the jobless rate was below 6 percent.

In his weekly Saturday morning address, Obama noted that businesses have added more than 10 million jobs over the past 55 months, marking the longest period of uninterrupted private-sector job growth in history. The economy is on a pace, he said, to create more jobs this year than in any year since the heady days of the tech-fueled boom of the 1990s.

All of that should cheer Democrats who head into the final month of the midterm election on the defensive. Headlines in The Washington Post and the New York Times offered a different interpretation of the seeming good news.

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