Uncertainty appears to rule the day as America approaches the November midterm elections. A new Washington Post-ABC News Poll conducted July 7-11 indicates that the national voting public is pessimistic about Washington’s ability to govern and sharply split over which party should control Congress.
This November will see the election of all 435 U.S. House seats and 36 Senate seats. 37 states will choose governors. The conventional wisdom suggests that the "out" party—in this case the GOP—should win enough seats to take back at least one house of Congress, if not both. For example, the 2002 midterm election year was the only one since FDR in 1946 when the sitting president’s party actually won seats in the House. Not only do Democrats face the wrath of the Tea Parties and declining public confidence in government, but they also face history’s high hurdle.
Despite the daunting odds, the polling data suggests that Democrats may have a better chance of preventing a Republican stampede than previously expected. The Washington Post-ABC News Poll shows that the public is divided over and frustrated with the Obama administration, Democratic congressional leaders, and the minority Republican Party. Let’s examine six particular items in this poll more closely, three showing the potential for the Democrats to hold onto power and then three indicating why Republicans could be on the verge of a major midterm sweep.
Why Democrats May Make Midterm History
First, Republicans should be highly concerned about the low level of confidence voters have in their ability to lead. When asked to gauge their level of confidence in Washington leaders to make the right decisions for the country’s future, 43 percent have confidence in President Obama, 32 percent in congressional Democrats, and just 26 percent in congressional Republicans. More troubling for Republicans is the fact that only eight percent of those with assurance in the congressional Republicans express having a "great deal" of confidence in them.
Second, when asked which party is most trusted at handling the nation’s economic morass, 48 percent suggested the Democrats and just 34 percent favored the Republicans. This is clearly bad news for Republicans who have spent the past two years hammering away at Democrats for enacting policies deemed detrimental to the economy. The classic James Carville line from Bill Clinton’s 1992 race was that "It’s the economy, stupid." If true today, then Democrats may still have some juice left heading into the final months of the 2010 campaign.
The third piece of data worth examining is the enthusiasm factor. Pundits on Sunday morning political programs like Fox News Sunday, McLaughlin Group, This Week, and The Chris Matthews Show in recent weeks have been consistent in their assessment that Republicans will benefit because their voters are simply more enthusiastic about voting this year than their Democratic counterparts. The new poll shows that 72 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans are enthusiastic about voting for their respective party congressional candidates. The enthusiasm gap—if it ever existed—now appears to be even at best.
Why Republicans Could Party Like It’s 1994
The fourth item of interest in the Washington Post-ABC News Poll shows that a whopping 90 percent say that the economy is either "not good" or "poor." This number is astoundingly dreadful for the White House and Democrats in the House and Senate. This particular poll has been tracking this question since October 1997 and only twice before has the total negative view of the economy been above 70 percent: it reached 72 percent 2002 just before voters tossed out the Democratic leadership that November and 91 percent in October 2008 before Obama’s victory.
Fifth, voters appear more interested in the Legislative Branch balancing the power of the Executive Branch rather than rubberstamping its decisions. 51 percent feel that the GOP should be in charge of Congress "to act as a check on Obama’s policies" while 43 percent want "the Democrats in charge of Congress, to help support Obama’s policies." This desire for divided government is intriguing and a bit contradictory given the fact that citizens frequently express their dismay with "gridlock" in Washington when the government is divided between the parties. Now, their apparent appetite for more gridlock may benefit the GOP at the polls.
Finally, Republican prospects should be emboldened by the revelation that 64 percent are currently dissatisfied with the way the federal government works, especially since the Democrats hold the House, Senate, and presidency. Even more fascinating is that the previous high levels of dissatisfaction were recorded at 64 percent in January 1995, just months after the Republican Revolution of 1994, 73 percent in October 1994 just a month before the GOP midterm sweep that year, and an all time high of 81 percent a month before Bill Clinton’s defeat of George H.W. Bush for the presidency in Nov. 1992.
November’s midterm elections can still cut either way. The public, while deeply concerned with the direction of the country and the state of the economy, seems unwilling to admit that they trust Republican leadership to steer the ship of state. The GOP’s quest to secure the trust of the public is undoubtedly hurt by their staunch opposition to extending unemployment benefits for Americans who are experiencing tough times and their foolish opposition (with the exception of three New England-area GOP Senators) to Wall Street reform measures. In the meantime, Democratic candidates and Obama are clearly ailing as a result of the static unemployment rate, the unpopular response to the Gulf oil spill, and the ballooning national debt.
It is unknown just yet as to whether voters will assign blame for the continuing economic doldrums to the Obama Democrats or the Bush Republicans. We may be in for a photo finish after all on Nov. 2. November could prove to be a real "change" election if voters remain this angry about the state of the economy and retain their pessimism about government in general.
Nathan Shrader holds an MS in Political Science from Suffolk University. He is also a PhD student at Temple University and a veteran of 20 political campaigns. He can be reached at [email protected]