The midterm elections are just around the corner and polling indicates that likely voters are not at all happy with the current state of the nation. With the economy still in the tank, the job number needle barely moving, and foreclosures expected to hit the 1 million mark this year, it’s no wonder voters are disgruntled.
Further evidence of the same has been seen in primary elections across the country. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s recent surprising loss in Alaska, raises to three the total of long term Senate incumbents [Specter (I-PA) and Bennett (R-UT)] who have gone down to defeat in the last several months. Nine term Congressman and former Delaware Governor, Mike Castle, went down to defeat in the DE Republican primary to another Tea Party extremist. Voter unrest is unmistakable.
It is also quite certain at this juncture that time has essentially run out for the Ds to get the economy back on track before November 2nd (never mind that this expectation begs the question of whether any party can be held responsible for this global economic meltdown, the likes of which has not been seen in 8 decades).
Without question, all these signs along with the historic fate of the party in power when a mid-term election is held do not augur well for election success for the Ds. In the 19 mid-term elections held since 1934, only twice has the President’s party gained seats in both the Senate and the House. Recent notable huge losses occurred in 1994 when the Ds lost 52 House seats during the Clinton Presidency, and in 2006 when the Rs lost 30 seats while Bush was in office.
Add to this picture two additional pieces of information and the prospects for a major electoral shakeup seem to be a slam dunk: 1) The typically staid Gallup organization’s latest data on voter enthusiasm which shows Republican voters are twice as likely—50 percent to 25 percent—to tell a pollster that they are “very” enthusiastic about voting this year, and 2) A “general reliability” factor of GOP voters being significantly more likely to show up for midterm elections. Young people and minorities are less likely to go to the polls for the midterms.
This composite of factors suggests the potential for what political scientists call a major “wave” election (rare occurrences when public dissatisfaction changes the political environment a la 1994) in which the Republicans stand to gain a large number of seats from the Democrats and in the process take back control of the House. Rs taking control of the Senate is now considered unlikely because of recent upset primary victories by far more conservative challengers in several states, giving the D candidates an edge.
On September 1st, Gallup reported Rs lead by 51% to 41% among registered voters in their weekly tracking of 2010 congressional voting preferences known as the generic ballot test. The 10-percentage-point lead was the GOP’s largest so far this year and is its largest in Gallup’s history of tracking the midterm generic ballot for Congress. But then on September 8 Gallup reported a dead heat at 46%-46% on the generic ballot question. This shift, coupled with the fact that Democrats led on the measure earlier in the summer, gives a very clear impression that voter sentiments are far from fixed on this matter. It goes without saying in elections as in life that it ain’t over til the soprano sings.
To keen observers (AAP members) of the national political scene, perhaps much of what I have stated above is old news. My goal was to set the stage for sharing additional data that I believe to be quite striking and is more helpful in shedding some light on the unusual current electoral landscape.
A survey by NBC News/Wall Street Journal asked people whether they believed that “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people” or that “government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals.” The principal pollsters are a Democrat and a Republican, so presumably no partisan slant exists. All of us are familiar with the D party mantra that more government is good, and the R party mantra that less government is desirable. The results show that in eight polls taken between 2002 and 2009, Americans preferred government to do more rather than less. In every single one, Americans favored greater governmental involvement, and in 2007 the margin was a whopping 17 points.
Starting one year ago, however, this trend changed. More respondents began to indicate that government was doing too much, by small but notable margins in four consecutive polls. What is noteworthy about this change is the fact that there was a clear shift among independent voters who are customarily neither as engaged, nor as ideological as either party’s faithful.
Historically, independent voters had sided with the Ds, by a few points in this poll, in favor of the government doing more. But that all changed a year ago. In the five polls since then, the opinions of independents shifted to a range of 10 – 21 points favoring the “less government” position.
A clear shift in swing voters’ attitudes about government’s proper role will most certainly have an impact on the Fall elections. Independents supported Ds for Congress by an 18-point margin in 2006, and by an 8-point margin in 2008. The shift among independents, if it holds, will translate into a significant number of seats for the Rs.
In the days following the Obama election in 2008, the two issues that now seem to dominate the dynamics of the upcoming election, a failing economy and a sense that the government was overreaching, were unimaginable. Not only are those factors now imaginable, They are palpable.
Congress returned today (September 14th) from their summer recess. One thing has been certain for the past two years in August when Congress was in recess, the country seemed particularly prone to heated hysterical-like reactions. Last year it was death panels and raucous town hall meetings, and this year it was the Ground Zero mosque, a Glenn Beck rally on the Mall, and many controversial demonstrations at 9/11 memorial observances. How bad the losses will be for the Ds in November will be more dependent on what transpires in the cooler months of September and October, and whether a cooler emotional response develops among those independent voters on November 2nd.
Whatever the final outcome is in November, we psychologists will have our full share of work to do to make new friends on Capitol Hill and insure that we maintain our old friends, as well. Sadly, we will say goodbye to our close friend Psychologist/Congressman Brian Baird (D-WA) who is retiring in January. We will also be losing Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) who has been a staunch advocate for mental health. AAP will continue to work diligently with the APAPO Government Relations team to forge working relationships with new and old members of both political parties who support the role of psychologists and mental health in federal public policy.