Just three months away from the midterm elections, in a cycle marred by anemic economic growth and high unemployment, any political party holding the White House and 59 percent majorities in the House and Senate would have plenty to worry about. But beyond the fragile state of the economy, the expected 1 million foreclosures this year, and dispiriting job numbers, something more basic is striking at the heart of President Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress who have pursued a boldly activist agenda. Many Americans, particularly independent voters, seem to be changing their minds and seeing the role of government in a somewhat different light.
For some time, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff have asked people whether they believed that "government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people" or that "government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals." In a PowerPoint presentation for clients and friends, McInturff has shown that in the eight NBC/WSJ polls taken between January 2002 and April 2009, Americans preferred government to do more rather than less.
Sometimes the margin was very wide. In September 2007, for example, 55 percent of respondents said that government should do more and only 38 percent said that government was trying to do too much. Other times, the margin was smaller -- but, every time, more Americans sided with greater governmental involvement, not less.
More than half of independent voters say that government does too much.
In four consecutive NBC/WSJ polls, starting 11 months ago, however, the story changed. More people began to say that government was doing too much. The margins were not breathtaking -- 2-to-5 points -- but they were noteworthy.
More importantly, however, a change began to take place about a year ago among independent voters, who are usually less engaged and less ideological than either party's faithful. Democrats have long tended to believe that government should do more and Republicans have consistently preached that government does too much.
By a few points, independent voters had generally sided with Democrats in favor of the government doing more, but they significantly changed their tune beginning last September. More than half, 56 percent, said then that government was doing too many things, and only 35 percent said that government should do more. In the five polls that began that month, the "less government" opinion won out by 10-to-21 points among independents, most recently in June 2010 by 15 points, 55 percent to 40 percent. That survey obviously came after the House voted for cap-and-trade legislation and after the health care reform battle was fully engaged.
Such a decisive shift in swing voters' attitudes about government's proper role will inevitably have electoral and policy implications. Independents supported Democrats for Congress by an 18-point margin in 2006, and by an 8-point advantage in 2008. In general, the shift among independents approximates the national popular vote for the House and translates very clearly into seats. In Gallup's polling this year, Republicans have averaged a 10-point lead in the generic congressional ballot test. An 18-point reversal, from an 8-point lead for Democrats in 2008 to a 10-point edge for Republicans, would have a dramatic impact in swing congressional districts and other key House and Senate races this year.
It's impossible to prove, but it seems likely that the weak economy and the feeling that the government is overreaching have become the two common dynamics in this election. These two monumental challenges would have seemed unlikely when Democrats celebrated Obama's inauguration, but they are very real today.
After back-to-back weeks with Democrats holding leads over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot test, the Gallup Organization reported this week that Republicans were ahead by 5 points, 48 percent to 43 percent. Since March, when Gallup began tracking this year's battle for Congress, the two parties have averaged a tie among registered voters, although Gallup notes that this result actually translates to about a 5-point lead for the GOP, because younger and minority voters are much less likely to turn out in midterm elections than older and white voters are.
It appears that the two-week Democratic jump was the kind of statistical aberration that occurs even in the best of polling.
This article appears in the August 7, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.