Dems Wearing Out Their Welcome?

November 21st, 2009



Originally published in National Journal.

The signs of the public’s impatience with Congress are growing ominous. They can be seen in a new Pew Research Center poll showing that that sentiment is becoming dangerously widespread for incumbents. The poll asked, “Would you like to see your re-presentative in Congress be re-elected in the next congressional election?” Just 52 percent of registered voters nationwide said yes.

Pew has been asking that question for nearly two decades. The current figure is one of the lowest on record. It is lower than the 58 percent recorded in November 1994, when voters threw out the Democratic majority in Congress. It is lower than the 55 percent tallied in November 2006, when voters ended Republican control of Congress.

Democrats seem to have only one thing in their favor next year: the president’s personal popularity.

Are voters becoming impatient with President Obama as well? Not especially. Obama’s job-approval ratings have been holding steady at just over 50 percent for months. The Pew poll shows the president’s job approval at 51 percent, about where it has been since August. An average of six polls taken over the past month puts Obama’s approval rating at 53 percent.

That happens to be the percentage of the vote that Obama won in the 2008 presidential election. But that number is down from the extraordinary honeymoon figures this president was getting last spring. Still, in politics, as in marriages, honeymoons don’t last forever. Obama’s popularity is about the same as President Reagan’s was in November 1981 (54 percent in the Gallup Poll).

In December 1980, just before Reagan took office, unemployment stood at 7.2 percent, precisely the same as in December 2008, just before Obama came in. Things have gotten worse faster under Obama. By October 1981, unemployment had climbed to 7.9 percent. Last month’s official unemployment figure was 10.2 percent.

Although Americans are not as gloomy about current economic conditions as they were early this year, their pessimism remains strong. For the first time in 2009, the number of people who expect the economy to improve next year has dipped below 40 percent. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say that their own financial situation is not good.

Those numbers are making congressional Democrats very nervous about the 2010 midterm election and are emboldening Republicans, who are beginning to talk about another upheaval in control of Congress next year. “The Republican resurgence begins again tonight,” House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., declared after the GOP captured Virginia’s governorship this month. It took 40 years for voters to overthrow the Democratic majority in the House (1954-1994). Then it took 12 years for them to reject the Republican majority there (1994-2006). Could the Democratic majority be in danger after only four years?

“Anti-incumbent” does not necessarily mean “anti-Democrat.” Nevertheless, the public’s growing discontent poses a greater danger to Democrats. Most congressional incumbents are Democrats, and having won big victories in 2006 and 2008, Democrats have more marginal seats to defend. The Cook Political Report lists 36 Democratic-held House seats as being in play next year but only 12 Republican-held ones. According to The Rothenberg Political Report, shaky Democratic House seats outnumber shaky Republican seats 32 to 16.

Both parties will be defending 19 Senate seats in 2010. The Cook Report rates eight Democratic and six Republican seats as in play. The Rothenberg Report lists seven Democratic and six Republican seats as in trouble. All incumbents may suffer next year, but Democrats are likely to suffer a little more: They have more vulnerable seats to defend.

Republican voters are also more motivated right now. The Pew poll asked respondents how enthusiastic they feel about voting in next year’s congressional elections. Fifty-eight percent of those who plan to vote Republican said they are “very enthusiastic.” Among Democrats, 42 percent felt that way. Enthusiasm is high even among independents who plan to vote Republican (56 percent are “very enthusiastic”). Among independents who plan to vote Democratic, just 32 percent are that motivated.

Democrats seem to have only one thing in their favor next year: the president’s personal popularity. Republicans had the same thing going for them when Reagan was president in 1982, and he helped limit his party’s losses by urging voters to “stay the course.”