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N2K: No Time to Rest for Obama

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April 4, 2011, 2:04 a.m.

A Win­throp Univ. poll; con­duc­ted 10/5-10; sur­veyed 741 LVs; mar­gin of er­ror +/- 3.6% (re­lease, 10/13). Tested: State Rep. Nikki Haley (R) and state Sen. Vin­cent Sheheen (R).

Gen­er­al Elec­tion Match­up

N. Haley 46% V. Shee­hen 37 Oth­er 1 Un­dec 13

(For more from this poll, please see today’s SC SEN and SC In The States stor­ies.)

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.”

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