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The Great American Tune Out: Interest in Midterm Elections Drops

What if a nation held an election, and most of the country didn’t care or participate?
A lone voter casts his ballot at a polling place inside a south Minneapolis church, Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. State officials expect a low turnout in Minnesota's primary election. As of mid afternoon, the election judge at the church said only 130 of the precinct's 1600 registered voters had voted. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)AP

What if a nation held an election, and most of the country didn’t care or participate? That’s the stark reality from our newest national NBC/WSJ poll, which shows that many voters are tuning out the elections that take place less than three weeks from now. According to the poll, high interest in the midterms has dropped from June (when it was 51%) to now (50%) -- when interest in previous election cycles has always increased in the months leading up to Election Day. Let it sink in: INTEREST IN THE ELECTION ACTUALLY DROPPED as the midterms drew closer. It’s truly a stunning trend. This lack of interest is especially true among political independents (only 35% of them have high interest), and these are the people who typically have to be energized for a party to make wave-like gains in an election. “2014 will likely set a record for the most amount of dollars expended per voter to reach and persuade the fewest amount of voters,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Fred Yang (D). This Great American Tune Out isn’t all that surprising when you consider that the two most important issues in the poll are 1) the economy, 2) and breaking the partisan gridlock in Washington. (Which campaigns and candidates are truly tackling these issues?) It’s also not surprising when just 12% of voters approve of Congress’ job (which is tied for it all-time low in the poll), and when only 30% say their member of Congress deserves to be re-elected. “There will be a winner on Election Night,” Yang adds, “but this poll suggests it is unlikely to be a satisfied American voter.”

Helping to explain Greg Orman’s appeal in Kansas

This anger -- and apathy -- helps explain what’s going on in Kansas, especially in the Senate race there. And check out these other two sets of numbers from our NBC/WSJ poll that explain the appeal of Greg Orman (I) over Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS). One, 55% of voters say they are more likely to support a candidate running for the first time, versus 22% who back one who has served in Congress for more than 10 years. Two, 50% say they are more likely to support a candidate who is willing to make compromises to get things done, compared with 42% who are more likely to back a candidate who sticks to his/her positions. The numbers were essentially reversed when this same question was asked back in Oct. 2010 -- 57% sided with the candidate willing to stick to his positions, while 34% wanted the candidate willing to make compromises. When reporting on Kansas and South Dakota, realize that this isn’t some quirk in just one or two states. This is simply what happens when you give a cranky electorate a viable independent vehicle. Evidence that there is a growing appeal for someone OUTSIDE the two parties has been in our polls for the last few years. And 2014 could be the culmination of that growing antipathy toward both parties.

Why Republicans have the slight midterm advantage

Our NBC/WSJ poll also shows what happens when voters want to punish one party but not necessarily reward the other one. In it, Republicans hold a SLIGHT advantage over Democrats, with 46% of likely voters preferring a GOP-controlled Congress, versus 44% who want Democrats in charge. That two-point GOP lead is greater for Republicans than it was at this same point during the 2012 presidential election (when it was even at 45%), but it’s less than the seven-point advantage they enjoyed in 2010 (50%-43%). But among a wider swath of all registered voters, Democrats have a four-point edge over Republicans, 46%-42%, suggesting that a stronger turnout could benefit their candidates. Still, the overall midterm-election fundamentals appear to benefit Republicans. President Barack Obama’s approval rating stands at 42% among registered voters -- up two points from his all-time low a month ago. A whopping 65% of voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction -- the highest percentage the poll has ever measured before a midterm election. And Republicans have more interest in the upcoming elections (59% say they’re very interested) than Democrats do (47%).

And why Democrats could still hold on

Although those fundamentals are aiding Republicans, there are numbers in the NBC/WSJ poll indicating Democrats could be in store for a better-than-expected Election Night. For starters, 50% of voters hold an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, compared with 43% who say the same of Democrats. In addition, just 33% of voters say they agree with congressional Republicans’ proposals (versus 41% who say that about Obama and 39% who say the same about congressional Democrats). “That’s not the track you want for your brand three weeks before the election,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R). In addition, there’s evidence that the unpopular Obama might not be a substantial drag on Democratic candidates. A plurality of registered voters -- 43% -- say that their vote won’t signal anything about Obama or his standing. (By comparison, 32% say it will be a vote of opposition to Obama, and 24% say it will be a vote of support.) Bottom line: All of these midterm numbers point to an outcome that would ORDINARILY benefit Republicans. But something is not right here. As McInturff puts it, “When you are sitting on top of an unstable electorate, there is a joker in the deck.”

56% say the nation is prepared for possible Ebola outbreak

With a second health-care worker in Dallas now testing positive for Ebola, the NBC/WSJ poll finds that 56% of Americans say that the nation is prepared for an outbreak, while 42% disagree -- including 20% who say that the U.S. is not prepared “at all.” Confidence in the country’s ability to manage Ebola also varies by party: 61% of Democrats believe the U.S. is prepared, while only 54% of independents and 52% of Republicans say the same. Majorities of rural voters (54%) and Tea Party supporters (57%) believe the U.S. isn’t prepared. Those with a college degree (57%) or post graduate degree (67%) have more confidence in the country’s readiness than those with a high school education or less (52%). Also, the findings come amid high interest in the story. A whopping 97% of respondents told pollsters that they’d seen, heard, or read about the treatment and death of Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of the disease in a Dallas hospital last week. And 98% said the same of the spread of the disease in West Africa. Those are the top two most recognized news stories during President Barack Obama’s tenure in office, even more widely known than the ISIS beheadings of Western journalists (94%) and the Travon Martin shooting (91%).

Support for U.S. combat troops against ISIS increases

Additionally, the poll finds that 41% of respondents believe both troops on the ground and airstrikes are necessary for the mission against ISIS, versus 35% who think it should be restricted to airstrikes; another 15% say no military action should be taken. That’s a reversal from the NBC/WSJ poll in September, when 40% wanted just airstrikes and 34% wanted both airstrikes and combat troops. The seven-point increase in those also wanting U.S. ground troops has been fueled mostly by groups that make up the GOP base. More self-described Republicans (up 14 points), men over 50 years old (up 18), white men (up 17) and seniors (up 10) now advocate for troops on the ground in the fight against the terror group. There’s been virtually no change since September among Democrats, young people, and white women.

House Democrats in retreat

Turning back to the midterms, Democrats have pulled their TV ads in two races they told us months ago would represent a good night for them if they won them -- the GOP-held seats of CO-6 and VA-10. A House Democratic strategist tells us the party is still fighting in seven GOP-held seats: FL-2, IA-3, NY-11, NE-2, CA-31, AR-2, and NJ-3. “Yes we are focused on defense,” the strategist tells us. “But there's also some offense. The truth is, we are doubling down on the places we can win in the final sprint as outside GOP groups moved $16 million into House races just last week.” But here is the reality as the New York Times puts it: “After countless dire emails and months of fading bravado, national Democrats in recent days have signaled with their money what they have been loath to acknowledge out loud: They will not win back the House and they will most likely lose additional seats in November.”

First Read’s Race of the Day: WV-3: Rahall vs. Jenkins

In a state where Obama’s name is mud, Democrat Rep. Nick Rahall is one of the most vulnerable incumbents in his party this cycle. Rahall has hung on to this seat since 1976, making him the last Democrat left in a coal-dependent Appalachian region staunchly against environmental regulations that affect its main industry. Now, he faces a more formidable candidate than in past years. State senator Evan Jenkins switched parties in 2013 to run as a Republican against Rahall, saying that “West Virginia is under attack from President Obama and a Democratic Party that our parents and grandparents would not recognize.”

Countdown to Election Day: 20 days

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