Americans are fed up with Congress and a federal government perpetually frozen in conflict, but voters remain sharply split over how to ease the gridlock in the nation’s capital, according to a new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.
Even after more than a year of pointed disagreements between President Obama and House Republicans, a narrow plurality of voters said that Washington is “more likely to make progress” on the major issues facing the country if it has a divided government after the 2012 elections.
Both parties are furiously trying to sell their vision to the nation, but wary voters, after three consecutive wave elections that saw at least 20 House seats change party hands, don’t appear ready to grant either side an unequivocal mandate.
The last such mandate, handed to Democrats and Obama in 2008, lasted only two years. By 2010, the political pendulum had swung back to the right, as House Democrats lost more than 60 seats to Republicans. Nearly two years later, voters remain unhappy with the results. Three in four of those surveyed said that “it’s time to give new people a chance” to serve in Congress.
The latest survey suggests a political environment that slightly favors the Democrats. A majority of voters polled, 50 percent, said they preferred that Democrats keep hold of the Senate, compared with 39 percent who wanted a GOP takeover.
On the House side, a slim plurality, 46 percent, said they hoped that Democrats would win the 25 seats they need to take back control, while 43 percent said they preferred that Republicans maintain power. That 3-point advantage, however, is down from an 11-point edge that Democrats held in a January poll.
Women and minorities are the key constituencies in the Democratic coalition to retake the House, according to the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll. White voters preferred to maintain the Republican-held House, but 66 percent of minorities wanted to put the Democrats in charge, compared with just 26 percent who were satisfied with the GOP.
Men in the survey, meanwhile, favored GOP control of the House by 47 percent to 40 percent. Women, however, wanted to see a Democratic takeover by 50 percent to 39 percent, providing the margin of advantage. A similar gender gap favoring Democrats has emerged in other national polls, as the party has tried to score political points over what leaders have called a Republican “war on women.”
Still, no party held a definitive advantage in the survey. In fact, one-third of respondents said that more progress on the biggest issues would come if neither Democrats nor Republicans had full rein in the nation’s capital. Only 25 percent thought that progress would be more likely with complete GOP control, and just 28 percent thought putting Democrats fully in charge would help end the gridlock.
The latest edition of the poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which surveyed 1,004 adults by landline and cell phone on April 19 -22. It has a margin of error of +/- 3.7 percentage points.
Support for lawmakers running for reelection has managed to crawl out of the single digits. But that improvement since late 2011 is more a testament to how far out of favor Congress has fallen than to any serious growth in support. Now, 13 percent of registered voters said that most members “have done a good enough job” to get reelected. A solid 77 percent said that it’s “time to give new people a chance.”
Dissatisfaction is widespread—it is true in cities, the suburbs, and rural areas, according to the poll. At least 70 percent of every age group, education level, and income level said that it’s time for new blood. And the feeling is shared among Democrats, Republicans, and independents.
But despite this pervasive unhappiness, survey respondents don’t appear prepared to unseat lawmakers en masse. Mirroring a historical trend, voters looked more favorably on their own members of Congress than on Congress as a whole.
Thirty-eight percent said that their representative deserved another term, a 4-point jump since December (albeit to only 38 percent). Incumbency was more a mixed bag than an albatross in the poll as well.
More than half of those surveyed, 56 percent, said it made no difference whether a candidate was an incumbent, an increase of 5 points since May 2010. Only 21 percent of voters said they would be less likely to vote for an incumbent; 14 percent said an incumbent was more likely to get their vote.
First-time office-seekers held no great appeal, either. Twenty-three percent of those surveyed said that a candidate with no elective experience was more likely to get their vote. But 21 percent said that such a candidate would be less likely to receive their support.
That mixed sentiment on incumbency has been borne out in the first wave of House primaries across the country. So far only one incumbent, Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, has lost to a nonincumbent challenger. And Schmidt did not take her opponent seriously, dodging debates and spending part of Election Day in Washington instead of her district. Those incumbents who have girded for battle, notably Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who faced down a tea party challenger, ethics allegations, and a free-spending anti-incumbent super PAC, have survived.
More tests come on Tuesday in Pennsylvania, where Republican Rep. Tim Murphy and Democratic Rep. Tim Holden face primary challengers—although Holden’s has been wrought as much by redistricting mapmakers as anti-incumbent fervor.
This article appears in the April 24, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.