Yesterday, I wrote a post about the Republican standing on the generic ballot being significantly better off now than four (and two) years ago.   Amy Walter from the Hotline made the following comment on my Facebook page:

“Thanks for the smart post Glen. It’s also interesting to note the tightening of the generic even as Congressional Dems have much higher fav ratings (and lower unfavs) than GOPers”

Amy made a good point (and a problematic for us Republicans).  In two late March surveys, two different polling firms came up with very different approval ratings for Democrats in Congress, but very similar — and troubling — ratings for Republicans in Congress.

The national Quinnipiac Survey conducted March 24-30, 2009 found that 40% approve and 49% disapprove of Democrats in Congress.  Meanwhile, the Financial Dynamics national survey for Hotline, conducted March 26-29, found a mirror opposite — 48% approve/43% disapprove of Democrats in Congress.

However, the two national surveys were consistent on the job rating for Republicans in Congress — The Q Poll found Americans rating GOPers in Congress at 30% approve/59% disapprove, while the FD Survey for Hotline found 30% approve/57% disapprove for the same group.

Don’t focus on the wrong part of this contradiction.   It’s not about which rating of congressional Dems is right — I can’t explain the difference, and as Republicans, that’s less important than the two-to-one negative rating we clearly have in Congress.  The contradiction, as Amy pointed out succinctly above, is that the generic ballot FOR CONGRESS has tightened despite low opinions of GOPers IN CONGRESS.

First of all, it is important to remember that the public, and therefore public opinion, is not required to be consistent.  We see this in data all the time.  It also helps explain why politicians aren’t always consistent either.

My theory in explaining this contradiction is a several step process.  First, voters haven’t forgiven Republicans for the 2005-2008 years of Iraq, Katrina, the economic crash, political scandals, and more.  Therefore, it’s going to take time before they trust Republican incumbent politicians as a group (even if they like their individual incumbents).  Secondly, voters are beginning to show signs that they worry they may have over-corrected and gave the Democrats too much unchecked power.

I remember back in the late 1980s doing focus groups with voters in swing districts that were voting Republican at the Presidential level, but Democratic at the Congressional level.   Those voters explained their behavior as ensuring “checks and balances.”  They didn’t trust either political party, so they wanted to make sure neither party could do too much — because that’s usually when things went too far.   Thus, these swing voters didn’t define “checks and balances” as judicial/legislative/executive, but as making sure there is enough of one party to keep an eye on the ones from the other party who are running the show.

Right now, the contradiction of the tighter generic ballot and the still weak rating of GOPers in Congress underscores that Republican candidates should focus on themselves and their opponent rather than nationalizing their campaign.  This can change, but it probably won’t shift enough to change that strategy heading into 2010.

Public Opinion Strategies