Independents Hate Both Parties as Never Before

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The recent wave of alienation could hit Democrats and Republicans alike in 2012. Will voters throw the bums out again?

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In the shadow of the bitterly fought agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling, the independent voters who usually hold the balance of power in American politics are expressing astronomical levels of discontent with President Obama, Congress, and the Washington system itself.

This towering wave of alienation presages more volatility for a political system that has seen the public turn from Republicans in 2004 toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008, only to snap back toward the GOP with near-record force in 2010. Now, on several key measures, the public's assessment of Congress is even more bleak than it was at this point in the last election cycle--even as Obama's ratings have fallen to some of the lowest levels of his presidency, particularly among independents.

With each party hemorrhaging public support amid political polarization and economic stagnation, the implications for 2012 are complex and unpredictable. American history lacks a true example of an election in which voters turned out large numbers of incumbents from both parties, but to some observers that no longer seems impossible amid the declining support for both Obama and congressional Republicans. And while no serious independent presidential candidate has yet emerged, the numbers show an unmistakable opening for a Ross Perot-style outsider candidate who mobilizes voters unhappy with both major parties.

The stock market's stomach-turning decline Thursday both parallels and reinforces the dismal verdict on Washington rendered in recent surveys: as the market Thursday tumbled almost as fast as the latest approval ratings for Obama and Congress, it seemed as if we were witnessing a simultaneous vote of no confidence from the public in both the American economy and its national government. On both fronts, the gathering gloom points to a wavering of national confidence certain to draw comparisons to the national "malaise" that undermined Jimmy Carter's presidency in the late 1970s and provided the backdrop for Ronald Reagan's 1980 landslide.

Rather than reversing the public disillusionment with Washington, this week's agreement to avoid federal default and institute a process for long-term reduction of the federal deficit appears only to have deepened the doubts. That marks a stark contrast from the last major bipartisan deficit-reduction deal between President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress in 1997, which strengthened both sides and drew support in polls from about two-thirds of Americans in each party. "Unlike the budget deal of 1997, which in the end of was kind of a grand moment of looking forward to the future of the country, this one ended badly for everybody," said Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster at the time. "There weren't any real winners, and the system looked bad for potentially endangering the country's fiscal future because of political games."

The results of polls taken just before and after the debt-ceiling agreement announced last Sunday underscore Penn's conclusion. They show a dim assessment of the agreement, all the key players, and Washington itself, especially among the independent voters who provided the decisive votes for Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections and for the GOP in 2010.

Consider these recent findings:

  • On Wednesday, Gallup reported that a 46 percent to 39 percent plurality of Americans said they opposed the agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling. Among independents, the reaction was much worse: just 33 percent approved, while 50 percent approved.
  • In a CNN/ORC poll conducted on Monday and released on Tuesday, just 14 percent of those surveyed said they approved of the way Congress is handling its job, while 84 percent disapproved. That was not only the lowest level of approval, and the highest level of disapproval, that the CNN poll has recorded -- the gap between the approval and disapproval numbers were as wide as Gallup has recorded in any of its polls measuring congressional performance dating back to 1974. The public verdict on Congress today is more negative than it was just before the election landslides that switched control of Congress in 1994, 2006, and 2010: Gallup surveys in the fall of those years put congressional approval between 21 percent and 26 percent.

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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.

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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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