By Steve and Cokie Roberts, NEA Columnists
Democrats are reeling. They're playing defense, not offense. Their loss in a Florida election for a vacant House seat -- in a district President Obama carried twice -- was a devastating blow. As Robert Gibbs, the president's former spokesman, admitted on NBC's "Meet the Press:" "There's a real, real danger that Democrats could suffer big losses" this fall.
Obama's favorable rating in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll dipped to 41 percent, the lowest of his presidency. The New York Times reports: "Obama Factor Adds to Fears of Democrats." Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told the Times: "The state of Democrats is very much tied to the state of the president, and in that regard, these are far from the best of times."
A president's party almost always loses Congressional seats in the sixth year of his term, but the administration badly aggravated that trend by botching the introduction of Obamacare. "The rollout left a bad taste in people's mouths from Day 1, and it's hard to create a new flavor now," says Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat.
Good news feeds on itself. Republican donors smell blood and are opening their checkbooks. The eagerness of former Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts to consider a Senate run in neighboring New Hampshire reflects that growing optimism.
The reverse is also true. The decision by several senior House Democrats to retire next year testifies to the party's pessimism.
So it's over, right? The election in November is a done deal. The Democrats are toast.
Not quite. They lost in Florida because they did not turn out enough of their own voters. They have to do a better job in November, and they have some positives to build on.
For one thing, polling numbers on Obamacare are slowly turning around. As more people sign up for insurance, as the benefits of the law become more tangible, Democrats have better stories to tell. In the latest CNN poll, support for the Affordable Care Act ticked upward, from 35 percent to 39 percent; opposition dropped by 5 points.
For another, Democrats retain a huge edge in the technology of politics and the ability to contact -- and galvanize -- potential supporters.
Democrats also retain a large advantage among Hispanic and Asian voters, and Republicans are allowing hard-core conservatives in the House to block immigration reform -- a self-defeating position that undercuts GOP attempts to court those groups.
The Democrats' best hope for recovery is this: Two large voting blocs, young people and women, actually agree with them on many key issues. The question is whether the party can get past the "bad taste" of Obamacare, and the president's pallid popularity, and focus attention on those issues.
Obama lost the male vote by 7 points in 2012 but won women by 11. That gender gap was actually based entirely on single women, who voted Democratic 67 to 31 (married women favored Romney by 7 points).
Single women include the recent college grad looking for her first job; the divorced mother supporting two kids as a waitress; the aged widow living on Social Security. What many of them have in common is economic vulnerability and that makes them open to the Democratic emphasis on income inequality.
One example: In the Journal poll, half of all men said they'd be more likely to support a candidate who backs raising the minimum wage. Among women, the number rose to two out of three.
Add in access to abortion and contraception. Republicans can come across as a party of old men telling young women what to do with their own bodies.
"Women have become a core constituency of the Democratic Party," David Axelrod, one of Obama's political advisors, told the Journal, "and they tend to be more sensitive to family, pocketbook issues and fundamental issues of fairness."
Young voters are also a "core constituency" of the Democrats. They voted 60 to 37 for Obama in 2012, and in a recent Pew poll, half identified with the Democrats, only one-third with the Republicans.
In the Pew survey, 68 percent of voters under age 33 backed gay marriage, an issue strongly linked to Democrats. Fifty-three percent said they would prefer a bigger government that provides more services, another basic Democrat precept.
Today the political landscape heavily favors Republicans. But Democrats could alter that terrain if they can manage to frame the election around issues that matter to young and female voters. And get them to the polls in November.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.