With just two weeks to go until Election Day, a clear picture of the American electorate is emerging, and it is not pretty, for either party. The country is anxious about the economy, Ebola and Islamic extremists, and does not really feel Republicans or Democrats have solutions to any of these vexing problems.
The latest Politico Battleground Poll of likely voters in key House and Senate races finds that 50 percent say the nation is "off on the wrong track" while just 20 percent say things are "generally headed in the right direction." A remarkable 64 percent say things in the U.S. are "out of control" while just 36 percent say the U.S. is in "good position to meet its economic and national security challenges."
The economy continues to dominant the issue landscape with 40 percent rating it the top issue, to 20 percent for national security.
President Barack Obama remains mired in negative territory, with 47 percent approving of his job performance and 53 percent disapproving. Such an environment would tend to favor Republicans, but their advantage is limited by the fact that people don't like them, either.
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In total, 38 percent approve of Democrats in Congress, while just 30 percent approve of Republicans. On the generic ballot questions, Democrats enjoy 41 percent support (including the independent Senate candidate in Kansas) while Republicans get 36 percent. That's hardly the backdrop for a massive GOP wave, though the polls suggest Republicans are still significant favorites to pick up the six seats they need to control the Senate next year.
The Ebola outbreak has clearly helped shape the final weeks in several Senate races, emerging as a significant wild card issue. In the Politico poll, only 22 percent of respondents said they had "a lot of confidence" that the federal government is doing all it can to contain the deadly disease. And the poll finished on Oct. 11, before the hospitalization of a second Dallas nurse.
In North Carolina, where this columnist has been for the last couple of days, state House Speaker Thom Tillis has been slamming incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan for what he calls her flip-flopping on the issue of a travel ban from Ebola-stricken countries.
Sen. Hagan told me after an event on Sunday that her position had not actually changed on a travel ban. "I've always said that a travel ban should be part of a broader use of tactics," she said. North Carolina Republicans did not buy it, pointing to a news conference in which Hagan said of a travel ban: "That's not going to solve this problem."
However, a Hagan spokeswoman emailed Sunday to note that the news conference clip circulated by Republicans omits a part where Hagan said: "I say we could look at a travel ban as part of a broader [set] of issues and restrictions."
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Hagan also said in a debate on Oct. 9: "Ebola is a serious issue. We are working right now with our coalition partners around the world. And we need to eradicate, we need to stop this disease, and we need to contain it. Travel bans should be part of this overall strategy. But it can't be the only part."
Polls suggest the North Carolina race remains deadlocked, and the airwaves across the state are saturated with attack ads from both sides, including heavy spending by outside groups (tilted in favor of Hagan), making this the most expensive Senate race in history.
In fact, the ads are so overwhelming and constant that it is easy to tune them out, as many voters I've spoken with here seem to have done. The adage in politics is that everyone says they hate negative ads, but they work, and that may be true. Except here, if all you did was watch the ads you would probably grow to loathe both candidates.
Very few voters I've spoken with remain truly undecided. Those who really are tend to be women, often with children.
Several women I spoke with over the last couple days said they were open to Tillis' economic appeal and deeply frustrated with Obama and the Democrats. But several said they were also turned off by Tillis' sharply negative tone and wanted to hear more about what he would actually do if elected. Others simply registered disgust with both candidates and with the tenor of the election, which seems to have little to do with the issue voters say they care about most: the economy.
Indeed, in a recent stump speech in Greensboro, Tillis spent much of his time ripping into Hagan for skipping a committee meeting on Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham in favor of a "Park Avenue cocktail fundraiser" and for benefits her husband allegedly reaped from the 2009 stimulus bill that Hagan supported. He saved a few throwaway lines toward the end for the economy and the need to get rid of burdensome regulations.
Tillis' ads often spent most of their time making Hagan out to be a dangerous Obama clone while Hagan's portray Tillis as a woman hater who would destroy public education.
Taken together, it's not hard to see how all this translates into an electorate that has no real confidence in current leadership to direct the nation onto a stronger course and little hope that this election will bring in a new crop of politicians to make things any better.
—By Ben White. White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.