With Washington turning its full attention to the fast-approaching midterm elections, National Journal gathered top pollsters to analyze the snapshots of America taken in its weekly Congressional Connection Poll. Atlantic Media Political Director Ronald Brownstein sat down on June 8 with CongressDaily Editor Jason Dick, Pew Research Center Associate Director Carroll Doherty, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, and former Democratic Rep. Vic Fazio, now a senior adviser at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ: How much opportunity do the White House and congressional Democrats have to change perceptions about the economy between now and November?
Doherty: It's very difficult at this point. As you noted in our poll today, only 10 percent say that the national economy is excellent or good. That has been rock solid for about two years now. When we ask the key question: Is the economy in recovery? Fifty percent say that it will take a long time for the economy to recover. That has not moved since March.
Greenberg: I'm skeptical that they will move in a significant way. I'm quite critical of the attempt [by the White House to claim that things are getting better] because I just think it's premature. People are in the middle of the crisis, near 10 percent unemployment -- they're just not going to respond to politicians telling them that what they've done [has helped] -- they think they've gotten themselves through this crisis. They think the politicians haven't done much. Trying to convince people that we've been successful is the wrong framework for the election.
Newhouse: I think people came out of the last election with extraordinarily high expectations, and I think Americans have been disappointed. We've gone from a "Do-Nothing" Congress to a "Do-the-Wrong-Thing" Congress, and the competency of their actions are coming into play. Voters are saying, "Where's my bailout? When do I feel some impact from all the money that's being spent?" You are seeing it especially with lower-income white voters, and those are the people who dominate the tea party. There's energy there.
NJ: Are you differentiating between Congress and the president?
Newhouse: I am. If you look at Democrats' approval rating of Obama, it is extraordinarily high; of Congress, extraordinarily low. That's why you're seeing some of our candidates focus a little more on [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi than Obama.
NJ: When you look at these low ratings for Congress, do you think this is fundamentally rooted in dissatisfaction about the economy?
Fazio: The presidential competence issue is something that's really up in the air right now in the Gulf [of Mexico]. We don't know the full impact of his apparent inability to make a difference there. But I think for Congress we basically have a very polarized country, and if you peel back those numbers that polarity still exists in almost every question that you ask. Democrats in Congress are struggling for reasons that are almost, in some ways, contradictory. Their base isn't energized, and the opposition -- whether it be the tea party faction, which again is rising in unpopularity -- is out there energized against them.
Greenberg: The trends are very clear, but there are very strong contradictory trends that are unique to this year. On the one hand, the congressional generic question results are even or minus 3 [for Democrats], but we won [in 2008] by 8 points, so it's a big, 11-point swing [toward Republicans]. But if you look at the favorability ratings of the Republican Party and Republicans in Congress, they have dropped steadily. So, while overall the numbers are unmistakable, there are counter-numbers that are also unmistakable, which allow people to fight it out district by district.
Doherty: You don't get a sense of Republican momentum at the moment on the issues, on overall favorability. Republicans have made gains compared to 2008, obviously, and 2006. But over the last four, five, six months, we don't see those gains. Maybe a little bit on immigration, but on the economy and deficit issues, they had already made gains; [now] they're running about even with the Democrats.
Newhouse: But running even [on the issues] for our guys is incredible. This is like campaigning downhill now. Keep in mind that the generic ballot numbers in 2008 were minus 12. This is a significantly different political environment, and midterm elections are traditionally about the incumbent administration.
Greenberg: We give you the edge -- you're going to win a lot of seats. You'll be very close to contesting control of Congress. But something that may be different here because of the underlying partisanship is that every poll here has Republican identification lower than Democrats.
NJ: What can Washington and Congress do to restore public trust?
Fazio: There's not much they can do. Really, in terms of policy, the president's popularity is always determinative for the party in a midterm election, and we need the president to have some successes. Maybe capping a well in the Gulf could be a good start.
NJ: We are now seeing consistently big gaps between the white electorate and the nonwhite electorate on virtually every element of what's going on: Obama's performance, policy preferences, party preferences, but also the basic role of government. Why?
Greenberg: White blue-collar folks are particularly angry. That drives independent voters away. But I think you may misread it as a racial response. Don't underestimate how powerful the debt is. People believe that the debt and leverage put the country at risk, that it produced the crisis. It was the excesses of elites, the CEOs but also government, also individuals who bought mortgages who never should've, and it took America down, it took the whole economy down. So when they see debt, when they see stimulus, they say, "Fine, maybe it got us through this." But what they think is that this was just further debt that just made it harder for the country to recover.
NJ: Do you think that the results you're seeing in the American electorate are primarily an ideological rejection of Obama's vision of government, or is it a sense [in the middle class] that they are not benefiting?
Newhouse: Just to be clear, they feel very intensely about this; they feel the country has been put at risk by greedy, irresponsible people. They're angry, but it's not cultural and, I don't think, ideological in that sense. It's very anti-government, very anti-elite.
NJ: One thing that is fundamentally different from 1994 is at that point the electorate was 86 percent white. In '08 it was 74 percent. How does that increasing diversity affect 2010 and 2012?
Newhouse: 2012 is a challenge for us. Anybody who reads right now, based on Obama's job performance and potential Republican gains this fall, that Obama is in any serious trouble in 2012 is misreading the data. We're still a long ways away from 2012, and if you look at the impact that Latino voters and Hispanics have in Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, swing states, it's going to pose a significant challenge for us.
Greenberg: Affluent suburbs have gone more and more for Democrats over time, both off-year and presidentially. If you look at the economic numbers in the poll, those are the voters who are seeing improvements, in their personal lives especially, [and] will probably see it in the coming months. They also look at the tea party and the extremism and intolerance of the Republican Party, and I think it further reinforces this trend.
NJ: So if Democrats hold down their losses, are the improvements more likely to occur in upscale districts than in blue-collar and downscale districts?
Greenberg: I think it's first going to come in the suburbs, before the blue-collar. But understand, there's a very strong populist streak here. People are angry at the companies, they're angry at government, they're angry at the insurance companies, they're angry at the oil companies, they're angry at Wall Street. If Democrats understand that, then that's the framing of this election, that fighting for the middle class and against these people and their greed and what they did to the country is a powerful concept.
NJ: If you are going to identify the key dynamics, either in terms of events or arguments or voting blocs that will determine the result between now and November, what are the things to watch?
Doherty: Frankly, I don't think, barring a miracle, we're going to see much improvement of economic attitudes. Obama's approval rating then becomes the next metric that you want to look at.
Greenberg: I'm watching the image of the Republican Party. That negative image is a backdrop that allows Democrats to, at the end, pose a choice.
Fazio: We need to see a resurgence of private-sector job growth. We need to see a consistent increase through the election. We need to see the stock market make at least some modest recovery from the current lows.
This article appears in the June 12, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.