CONGRESS

Public Opinion Could Lead to Further Gridlock

Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
April 23, 2012, 5:35 p.m.

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.

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