Unlike recent wave elections, the 2012 contests are shaping up as an opportunity for voters to cast a pox on both parties — a split verdict similar to the outcome two decades ago, when Congress was almost as unpopular as it is today.
The 2006, 2008, and 2010 elections were clear referenda on the parties in power. In 2006, voters reacting to stagnant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to a federal government whose response to Hurricane Katrina revealed its ineptitude, voted out the Republican Congress. In 2008, voters punished Republicans again. By 2010, the struggling economy and unpopular health care legislation turned the harsh light of scrutiny on Democrats, who lost control of the House.
Now, with a divided government near the nadir of its popularity, voters are angry and politicians are picking up the cues. President Obama is trying to tap into that populist anger; so are Republicans, fueled by the tea party movement. Voters’ discontent with Washington and their pessimism about the economy, plus the tumultuous landscape following the decennial redistricting process, is reminiscent of 1992, the last time Washington was so unpopular.
That year, Democrats controlled Congress while Republicans held the White House. The economy was becoming a drag (then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville reminded everyone that the election was about “the economy, stupid”). The administration and Congress were at loggerheads. And Capitol Hill was embroiled in a check-bouncing scandal that made everyone look like corrupt good ol’ boys.
Voters viewed all of Washington in a harsh light. In the final ABC/Washington Post survey before the 1992 election, just 17 percent of Americans said they had positive feelings about the federal government, while 81 percent said they felt either dissatisfied or angry with the way the government worked. That was the highest pessimism the poll ever recorded.
And voters made plain that disgust. They kicked out an incumbent Republican president (and gave an independent, Ross Perot, 19 percent of the popular vote) even while they awarded a net nine Democratic seats to the GOP. But that tells only part of the story: In total, 43 House members lost their seats, either in primaries or general elections, while five senators found themselves out of jobs.
“The mood of the electorate in 1992 was terrifically anti-Washington, very anti-incumbent,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who led the National Republican Congressional Committee in 1992. Voters “had the sense that the economy wasn’t in good shape and the people up here couldn’t get anything done. It became, really, an anti-incumbent election, rather than an anti-Democrat or anti-Republican election.
“I think you’re going to see something very similar this cycle, where incumbents need to be on their toes,” Cole said.
For all the attention the “Republican Revolution” class of 1994 received, more new members came to Congress after the 1992 election. More than a quarter of the entire House — 110 members —were freshmen (compared with 85 in 1994).
This cycle’s mood mirrors 1992. Just 9 percent of the electorate approve of Congress, according to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll. And 79 percent told ABC News/Washington Post pollsters they are dissatisfied with the way the country’s political system is working, only 2 percentage points off the 81 percent who said the same thing just before the 1992 elections.
And, as in 1992, redistricting is adding to the tumult as even seemingly safe members have to contend with thousands of new voters who want change. As in 1992, no incumbent next year is truly secure, whether in primary or general elections.
“If I were running a campaign committee, I would be telling my colleagues: ‘Most people in this room should not assume that you’re safe,’” said Martin Frost, a former Texas representative who survived 1992 and later led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “If I were in office, I’d be running like hell no matter how well I’d done in the last couple of elections.”
Redistricting helped Republicans pick up a number of Southern seats in 1992, but they also made gains in traditionally Democratic New York and Massachusetts, thanks to incumbents who were embroiled in the House banking scandal. Democrats picked up seats in states such as Arizona, California, Illinois, and Florida partly because of changed demographics, and partly because of their own creative mapmaking.
Frost believes the anti-incumbent mood may actually be stronger today than it was then. Republicans must contend with an activist base that still believes its party should be more ideological. Democrats have their own discord among liberals, albeit less intense than the GOP’s strife.
Warning lights are already flashing on Capitol Hill.
“They sense the restlessness of their own electorates, who are equally dissatisfied with anybody up in Washington,” said Republican Cole. “These are the kinds of things that put incumbents in jeopardy.”
This article appears in the Oct. 27, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.