In July, I wrote that the odds of a nationalized election were growing because of that worsening environment for Democrats. Back then, there were clear signs that the red-state races were tilting in the GOP's direction, while Republicans were running surprisingly strong campaigns in swing states. Those trends have only solidified since then. The national environment can change over time—few could have predicted a panic over Ebola in the summer, for example—but it was hard to see the issues dragging down the president and his party subsiding by the fall. Now, it's becoming likely that Republicans will win more than the six seats necessary to retake control of the Senate.
Throughout this election cycle, the Democrats have been dogged by the president's health care law. Dissatisfaction over Obamacare, compounded by its disastrous rollout, sent the president's approval ratings tumbling. They haven't recovered. The law's popularity hasn't improved since then, even with the administration delaying unpopular provisions until after the midterm elections. When Democratic senators spent time strategizing on how to inoculate themselves from their past support of the law instead of defending it, it was clear that this would long remain a vulnerability for the party. Indeed, despite conventional wisdom that health care has diminished as a top issue in the midterms, it's still (by far) the dominant theme in Republican congressional campaign ads, according to The Cook Political Report's Elizabeth Wilner. Not only does it mobilize angry Republican voters, but it persuades disaffected independents as well.
In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, support for the health care law isn't far from its all-time low, with 36 percent supporting and 48 percent opposing (a whopping 43 percent opposing strongly). After the health care website debacle in December 2013, 34 percent supported and 50 percent opposed. Its potency as an issue isn't too far off from 2010, an election where Republicans made historic gains in the House. Before the 2010 midterms, 36 percent of voters listed health care as one of their top two issues. Now, it's at 30 percent, ranking below economic growth, partisan gridlock, and military action against ISIS—but still a potent campaign theme.
Over the summer, worsening foreign policy was also an issue that looked bound to get worse for Democrats, not better. Presidential speeches and promises can only do so much in combating the reality of terrorists gaining ground in the Middle East and Russian President Vladimir Putin making a land grab in eastern Ukraine. As George W. Bush learned in his presidency, when events turn bad overseas, it's rare that they improve quickly. President Obama is now talking about defeating ISIS in terms of decades, not months or years. The limited airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have only had a limited effect, with the terrorist group creeping closer to Baghdad despite the U.S efforts. As a result, the president's approval ratings on foreign policy and national security—a first-term strength—have dropped to at or near all-time lows, and haven't recovered much with his prime-time address.