For any serious political aficionado, a 138-page report released last week by the Pew Research Center makes for interesting, though depressing, reading. The study, titled "The People and Their Government: Distrust, Discontent, Anger, and Partisan Rancor," contains fascinating data and observations.
One of the findings that jumps out is in the second sentence. Pew says that its survey research revealed "a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government -- a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials."
It took Republicans six or eight years to destroy their party's brand; it took Democrats less than 18 months to trash theirs.
The report, based on four recent Pew national surveys, depicts an American electorate that is angry and suspicious, fearful and vengeful. Sixty-five percent of respondents say that Congress is having a negative effect on the country; 47 percent say that government threatens their personal rights and freedoms; and only 43 percent say they would like to see their member of Congress re-elected this fall, a record low. Voters were happy to dislodge Republicans from their congressional majorities in 2006 and from the White House in 2008. And this same electorate is threatening to throw out the House's Democratic majority this year. A party in power these days seems like a rodeo cowboy riding a bucking bronco -- just trying to hang on.
Deeper in the report is a table comparing current attitudes, captured in Pew's survey of 1,001 Americans taken April 1-5, with those found in Pew polls taken in July 1994 and October 2006, the last years that election "waves" remade the national political landscape. In July 1994, a little more than three months before Democrats lost both the House and Senate, Congress had an overall job-approval rating of 53 percent. In October 2006, the month before Republicans lost both chambers, just 41 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Congress. Earlier this month, Congress's favorable rating was an abysmal 25 percent.
Meanwhile, the GOP scored a favorable rating of just 37 percent in the recent Pew survey. Some Democrats find considerable solace in the fact that voters don't like Republicans much. Yet their own party's favorable rating was just 38 percent, a mere point higher. (In a recent Gallup Poll, Democrats had a 41 percent favorable rating, putting them 1 point lower than Republicans.)
The fact that the two parties are seen as equally unattractive also might comfort some Democrats, but only if they ignore two realities. First, it took Republicans six or eight years to destroy their party's brand; it took Democrats less than 18 months to trash theirs. More important, we have never seen a midterm election turn into a referendum on a party that had no power. Midterm elections are all about the party in power, particularly when that party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress. The Republican Party has a plethora of problems, but this election will not be about them. The GOP will have to deal with its problems by 2012. But this year? Not so much.
A larger Pew survey of 2,070 registered voters conducted March 11-21 found the parties tied at 44 percent in the generic congressional ballot test, in which voters were asked whether they intend to vote for the Republican or Democratic House candidate in their district. During those same two weeks, Gallup's tracking poll of registered voters found Democrats ahead by 2 or 3 percentage points -- 47 percent to 45 or 44 percent. The past three weeks of Gallup tracking produced similarly close numbers in response to the generic ballot question.
However, Democrats should be extremely worried about the fact that midterm electorates are almost always older and whiter -- meaning, more Republican -- than the electorates in presidential contests. And this year, Republicans are showing much greater intensity and enthusiasm than Democrats. So, even if the parties are running neck and neck among registered voters on Election Day, Republicans would come out ahead in the popular vote and very likely the House seat count.
Simply put, this is a lousy time to be the party holding all the power. Democrats can expect that voters will make them bear the brunt of the blame for everything that the people think is wrong with the country.
This article appears in the April 24, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.