Independents Hate Both Parties as Never Before

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  • Among independents, Congress' approval rating in the new CNN poll stood at just 11 percent. That's significantly worse even than the results in an October 2006 CNN survey conducted shortly before the wave that swept Democrats to control of both chambers that year: at that point 26 percent of independents approved of the performance of the Republican-controlled Congress.
  • During the last week of July, Obama's approval rating in the weekly average of Gallup's tracking poll reached its lowest point ever -- 42 percent. Among independents, Obama also hit a new low of just 37 percent. That's a 15 percentage point decline from his 52 percent share of the vote among independents in 2008.

This week's United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International fills out the picture by underscoring the breadth of discontent not only with the individual players but the overall Washington system. In that poll, which surveyed 1,001 adults from July 28-31, fully 58 percent of the adults surveyed said they had not much or no confidence at all the government would make progress over the next year on the most important problems facing the country. Far fewer expressed even some (35 percent) much less a lot (7 percent) of confidence in Washington's ability to make progress. Those results registered slightly more pessimism than the poll found on that question just before the GOP's 2010 landslide.

Among independents the assessment was even bleaker: Just 36 percent expressed confidence in the capital's ability to produce progress; 63 percent were dubious. Among white independents, the numbers tilt even further: only 26 percent expressed confidence, while 73 percent saw little reason for optimism.

Asked in the survey which party they trusted to do a better job of coping with the nation's principal problems, Americans overall picked the Democrats over Republicans by 43 percent to 31 percent. But among independents, just 33 percent picked Democrats, while 24 percent preferred Republicans; fully 28 percent of independents volunteered that they trusted neither party to make progress. Among white independents, fully 33 percent volunteered that they trusted neither party--more than picked either Democrats or Republicans (27 percent each).

These findings raise three intertwined questions for 2012. The first is whether this broad and corrosive discontent could encourage a third-party independent presidential candidacy. No serious independent contender has yet emerged, although a new group called Americans Elect is attempting to secure ballot access in all 50 states for a third-party ticket it intends to nominate through an online process next year.

Mark McKinnon, a former Democrat who served as George W. Bush's chief media adviser, is on the group's advisory board and bullish about its prospects. "There are lots of challenges and all the obvious things you think of, but at the end of the day they are going to be on the ballot in 50 states," he says. "Come next April, as people begin to look at Obama and Mitt Romney or Obama and Rick Perry they are going to be dissatisfied and they are going to be looking for something new and there is going to be this effort out there. In that environment.... There could be some very attractive candidates who show up [to compete for this nomination]."

Penn, who ran Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 primary campaign and has often criticized Obama's strategic choices as president, is more cautious. He says public opinion provides a potential audience for an independent bid--but that the same practical obstacles that have derailed previous third-party efforts remain in force. "The problem with any independent movement or candidate is they tend to be only spoilers unless they take equally from both sides," he said.

The second big question posed by this alienation is whether it could simultaneously threaten all incumbents, perhaps overturning the Republican majority in the House, the Democratic majority in the Senate, and Obama's hold on the Oval Office. McKinnon believes the conditions are coalescing for exactly that kind of wave next year. "I think this is going to be the most massive incumbent backlash that we've ever seen, and therefore it will be a broad-scale tsunami that will wipe everybody out regardless of which party it is," he says. "You could see a scenario where Obama loses the presidency and Republicans lose the House."

No previous election in American history has produced such an equal opportunity "throw-the-bums-out" result that defeated large numbers of incumbents in both parties, notes Gary Jacobson, a University of California (San Diego) political scientist who specializes in congressional politics. To his mind, the closest corollary was 1990 when House incumbents in both parties saw their margins of victory decline, even though relatively few were actually defeated.

Despite all the discontent surging through recent surveys, Jacobson says he's dubious that 2012 will produce the sort of bipartisan revolt that McKinnon projects. In fact, recent decades have seen a growing correlation between the way Americans vote for president and their choices in House and Senate elections.

As a result, Jacobson and other analysts note, big changes in Congress almost always track attitudes (positive or negative) about the president: the Democratic gains in 1982 and 2006 and the Republican landslides of 1994 and 2010 all came against the backdrop of poor approval ratings for a president of the other party. "I would be very surprised if Obama loses and Democrats take over the House--that's a virtually impossible scenario," he argues. Counters McKinnon: "I don't think we have seen anything like this electoral landscape that is shaping up, so you can just throw conventional wisdom out the door."

Penn comes out in between. He says he's not as certain that angry independents won't toss out both Obama and the House GOP majority in 2012. More likely, he says, is that voters may wait two years before turning on the victorious party in 2012--the way they turned on Democrats two years after Clinton's victory in 1992, Republicans two years after Bush's reelection in 2004, and Democrats two years after Obama recorded the most decisive win for any Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. That whiplash pattern points to the third, and possibly most important, conclusion from the dismal polling numbers confronting all sides in Washington: the extent to which both parties have failed to secure enough support from independents to sustain a lasting advantage over the other. First Republicans after Bush's 2004 reelection, and then Democrats after Obama's 2008 rout, thought the results pointed toward a durable realignment in their direction.

Such enduring shifts in political advantage have punctuated most of American political history: Democrats in 1800, 1828, and 1932, and Republicans in 1860 and 1896 each engineered decisive shifts in voter allegiance that allowed them to hold both the White House and Congress for most of the next generation. But since 1968, neither side has managed such a breakthrough or built such an abiding connection with voters. Over the past four decades, the result has been to make divided control of Congress and the White House much more common than at any previous point in American history. Lately, that instability has been compounded by more rapid turnover in control of the House and Senate.

The clearest implication of our summer of discontent is that neither Obama nor congressional Republicans show any sign of breaking that pattern. Both have failed to seize the opening provided by their big electoral victories to consolidate public support. That doesn't mean either is doomed to defeat in 2012. But it does mean that, however the next election turns out, it is unlikely to ensure either side the kind of lasting electoral advantage once enjoyed by the Republicans of Lincoln and McKinley or the Democrats of Jefferson, Jackson, and Franklin Roosevelt. Today, each party is building its hopes of dominance on sand--and the waves of alienation that have repeatedly upended Washington's balance of power since 2004 are still pounding powerfully toward the shore.

Image credit: Reuters

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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