It’s Not The End of the World As We Know It

A lot of pundits have been overreaching on their analysis of the extraordinarily dramatic data that has shown significant voter anger at Washington.  There have been predictions that incumbents are “unsafe at any speed” and that voters are going to wipe out both Republicans (who after all control the House, where legislation passes before Harry Reid sits on it and does nothing as the country burns) and Democrats.  Well, as Colonel Sherman T. Potter used to say on M*A*S*H* — “Horse hockey!”

This narrative is built on real data — only 13{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve of Congress, 54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} would vote to replace all incumbents, and GOPers receive the same amount of blame for the S&P credit downgrade as Obama & the Democrats do.  But that narrative also cherrypicks data and ignores history.

Waves don’t travel in two directions, and political waves do not either.  Political waves work FOR the party that does not have control of the White House.  In years when the party that has control of the White House does well, it is not a wave election.  Instead, they pick up a few seats, crow (understandably so) and go to sleep dreaming of an “electoral lock” and forty years of uninterrupted power.  After 2006, it’s not like voters said — “well, we handed control of Congress to the Democrats, and they haven’t done anything yet, so let’s take it out on them in 2008!”  Nope, they took it out on the party of the guy in the White House.  Even though the Democrats wanted Bush to fail, wouldn’t pass his bills, and thought he should be impeached (those were all cool back then — now those ideas are uncivil).

(Sorry Dems, saying Republicans are rooting against America is not a credible message.  It didn’t work for us in 2006/08 — when voters are unhappy with your policies, whining about your inability to pass more bad policies falls on the deaf ears of swing voters.  So, go ahead and keep up that message.)

Look at the current House preference from the NBC/WSJ poll.*  It shows a 47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}-41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} GOP preference among registered voters (not likely voters, registered voters!).  In October 2010 it showed GOPers with a six point advantage among likely voters — which reflects the actual results.  Overall, in all of their 2010 polling, GOPers had a two point advantage.  So far in 2011 (just June and August), the GOP lead has averaged three points.

Compared to 2010, Republicans are doing noticeably better among men, voters in the South, voters in the West, 18-34 year olds, 50-64 year olds, blue collar workers, retirees, and small town/rural voters.  Democrats, meanwhile, have improved in the Northeast and with the lowest income group.

Looking at a more traditional generic ballot test for the House, polling by Politico/GWU Battleground, the Democracy Corp, and Quinnipiac all show the generic ballot even.  While that is not as optimistic as the House preference question, it is also NOT a sign that the Democrats are headed toward taking control of the House.  Given the first ever GOP redistricting advantage with modern-day tools, a tied generic ballot won’t get it done for the Democrats.  Obviously opinions can shift in the next year, but the political environment is not conducive for the party in power to gain more power.

And, in March of 2010, fully 50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said they would vote against all incumbents if they could.  Well, they can’t and they won’t.  But, the broader point is that it is 54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} now, and it was 50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} then, and yet only two GOP incumbents lost in 2010 — both of whom had captured strongly Democratic seats in unique circumstances that were not replicated, as in one case Dems didn’t split the vote, and in the other the Dem nominee wasn’t heading for jail.  So, while the “vote against all incumbents” is a good way to measure voter frustration with Washington, it is not indicative of actual outcomes.

Does this mean Republican incumbents do not need to worry about the record low approval rating for Congress, the wrong track number, and the danger they will be caught up in an incumbent mood?  No, they still have to, as individuals, be extra careful to run aggressive campaigns.  This is not the election cycle to hoard your campaign cash.  Instead, it is the election cycle to reach voters across many different types of media — starting, as always, in person, but also social media, new media, as well as mail, phones, and TV.  Because somewhere, somehow, a Republican incumbent is unexpectedly going to be defeated in a primary because they took the race for granted.    However, there won’t be a wave — at least against Republicans.

Let’s say things turn around for the Administration, somehow jobs are created, and Obama gets re-elected.  Well, a rising tide lifts all boats.  If voter frustration with the White House subsides (the clock is ticking), frustration with Congress will ebb as well.  Looking at the last three cases (1984, 1996, and 2004) in the modern era**, when a President gets re-elected, his party picks up an average of only nine House seats.   And, in two of those cases, the President’s party was already in the minority, so it’s not as though they had already maxed out their number of seats.

There is no clarity about what happens in the House elections when things go badly for Presidents and they do not get re-elected (Carter lost 35 seats in 1980, while GOPers gained 9 seats despite Bush in 1992).  Given the mood of the country, the lack of economic confidence, and the President’s low approval rating, it is unlikely that Obama can win a landslide.  He certainly has time to change his standing with the public, although as one analyst noted (sorry — I’d like to credit the writer, but I can’t find what I read early this morning — will correct it if someone sends me a link) that both Reagan and Clinton were above 50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} job approval at this point in time.

Back in December, I made the case (see link in previous paragraph) that the GOP is going to hold the House.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

* This post does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of anyone involved in the NBC/WSJ poll, either of the two media outlets or the two talented pollsters.

** At my age, I conveniently define the modern political era as starting in 1980, which was the first Presidential election I was eligible to vote in.  That was back in the day when Republicans were blue (as conservative parties around the world are) and Democrats were red (as lefties around the world are) before the media thought it unfair so they switched it in 2000.

Public Opinion Strategies