If the polls are not egregiously off-base, the Democrats will take a drubbing in next month’s midterm elections. They might lose control of one or both houses of Congress, as well as multiple gubernatorial and state legislative races. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, forty-three percent of likely voters said they would vote Democratic and forty-nine percent Republican. This is a slight improvement for the Democrats. Similarly, fifty percent of respondents expressed approval of President Obama’s performance, as against forty-seven expressing disapproval. This, too, is an improvement.
And yet, on measure after measure, the majority of respondents have more confidence in Democrats than Republicans. Although Congress as a whole is held in such bad repute that child molesters may be more popular, Democrats in Congress are rated better than Republicans. When asked which party will do better in coping with the main national problems, Democrats come out ahead, 42 to 38 percent. Democrats have the edge on the economy, health care, Afghanistan, and helping the middle class. Republicans have a significant edge only on taxes, and their lead has shrunk. Democrats have worked themselves into a virtual tie with Republicans on dealing with the budget deficit. On the other hand, Republicans were long at a disadvantage on immigration, but now are in a tie with Democrats.
Specifically on health care reform, the public appears evenly split, with 47 percent supporting and 48 percent opposing the law. But most of the opponents are strongly opposed, and they outnumber the strong supporters, 35 to 26 percent. Forty percent of respondents would support an effort to repeal the health care reforms, as opposed to 47 percent who support those changes.
Substantively, then, the Democrats appear to be in a strong position. Thirty-three percent of respondents call themselves Democrats, twenty-three percent Republican, and thirty-nine percent independent. Slightly more independents admit to leaning Republican than Democrat. More people oppose the Tea Party movement than support it (40 to 47 percent).
Yet, 71 percent of respondents are unhappy about the way the federal government works, and 90 percent feel negatively about the state of the economy. More than two-thirds think that federal spending on economic stimulus has been wasted. Only 21 percent call themselves liberals, as against 34 percent conservatives and 43 percent moderates.
In short, Republicans stand to win an election even though more voters oppose their ideas than support them. What’s going on?
I suggest two interlocking factors. The first and most obvious is that “It’s the economy, stupid!” Submerging all the areas of agreement with Democrats is the reality of a stubbornly weak economic recovery. If Clinton could get voters to go against an incumbent George I on the basis of an economy far stronger than what we have now, it is scarcely surprising that the incumbent Barack Obama and his party are going to pay for the worst recession since the 1930s. And that’s true even if it means putting into power a crew that most voters don’t trust to make things better.
That leads to the second, less obvious explanation. Our democracy offers the voter only the bluntest of clubs with which to send messages. If we are unhappy with the state of public affairs, the system doesn’t allow us to vote for or against particular policies. The people don’t decide policy. They decide who is to make policy and rule over them. They have two meaningful choices: those who are in power and those who are not. So if voters are unhappy, they can only register that at election time by voting against the Ins, even if thereby they guarantee that things will get worse.
If we had proportional representation in Congress, at least we could vote for parties that came closer to representing what we really think, and let the multiple minorities hash it out in the parliament. But we don’t have that, and minor parties like the Libertarians or the Socialists never have a chance to break through. We are stuck with a Democratic Party that has to bridge from Blue Dogs to Barbara Boxer. No wonder it’s incoherent even with strong majorities in both houses and a strong mandate for the President.
The Democrats’ best chance to limit the damage is to get voters to focus on why a Republican victory will actually hurt the values and interests that voters care about. And obviously, turn out their supporters!
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University