Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Sour Electorate

One of the reliable adages in American politics is that most American voters can't stand politicians but they like the one from their town.  This is one of the reasons -- in additon to the inherent financial advantages and gerrymandering power -- that historically there is very little turnover in Congress, with 90 to 98% of incumbents being re-elected every two years for the past generation.

For this trend to remain in place again this fall, it's going to take some very creative campaigning by incumbents and just the right voter turnout on Election Day.

The most well-informed way to observe and analyze American political behavior is to take a look at the public opinion polls leading up to an election.

According to RealClearPolitics, the average data from multiple public opinion polls shows that just 22% of Americans approve of the job that Congress is doing.  The poll from CBS News shows that approval number as low as 15%, but it's interesting that even the most favorable finding (from the Associated Press poll) found that fewer than 3 in 10 Americans approve of the job that their elected representatives are doing in Congress.

But wait, there's more.  The results of two separate polls released this week illustrate the sour mood of the American electorate when it comes to their perceptions of incumbents on the ballot this fall.

First, Rasmussen Reports released the latest results of its tracking poll in which it regularly asks likely voters if the country would be better off if most incumbents were re-elected to Congress.  The results from June 11th show that just 19% of voters agreed with this statement -- and that 65% believe that we would be better off if most incumbents lose their re-election campaigns.

This finding is consistent with the results of a Gallup poll released on June 8th, showing that registered voters are nearly twice as likely to say they would rather vote for a Congressional candidate with no prior experience in Congress as to say they would vote for one who has previously served in Congress. The poll found that 60% of voters favor a candidate who has never been in Congress, while only 32% favor candidates with Congressional experience.

Given the horrible political landscape for Democrats this year -- President Obama's approval rating is still hovering at or below 50%, unemployment remains high, economic recovery remains sluggish -- it would be tempting to presume that this sour mood is directed at incumbent Democrats. But while hoping incumbents get defeated, only 42% of likely voters in the latest Rasmussen poll said there would be a noticeable change in the lives of most Americans if the Republicans recapture control of Congress from the Democrats, 32%don’t expect much to change, while another 25% are not sure.
This is not exactly a pro-Republican or anti-Democrat message we're hearing from the electorate right now. It's much closer to a "you both stink" message.

Of course, amid all of the dismal polling data regarding incumbents, there is still the predictable "but I like my guy" sentiment in the political atmosphere this year. Even the recent Gallup poll that found so much preference for Congressional candidates with no prior experience also found that voters were more charitable when rating their own members of Congress than they were when rating "most members." Whereas only 32% of voters say most members deserve re-election, a more robust 50% say their own member does. Still, this latter number ranks among the lowest percentages endorsing their own representative for another term that Gallup has measured, just two percentage points above the all-time low of 48% from October 1992.

The anti-incumbent sentiment is perhaps best captured, though, in my favorite political tracking poll for those political junkies who are still able to keep a sense of humor about these things. A May 2010 Rasmussen survey found that 41% of likely American voters believe a group of people selected at random from the phone book would do a better job addressing the nation’s problems than the current Congress. Lest you think that a majority of voters therefore disagrees, 20% of those surveyed were actually undecided.

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