Anger With Congress Reaching New Levels

Pulling the lever, pulling the plug: Voters are ready to "throw the bums out."

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Across a wide array of measures, Americans are now as dissatisfied with Congress as they were immediately before the 2006 and 2010 electoral landslides that ousted the majority party in one or both chambers, according to a year-end United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.

One year after Republicans made the largest gains in a midterm House election since 1938, the survey finds Americans still restless, dissatisfied, and profoundly pessimistic about Washington's capacity to make progress on the major problems facing the country.

In the survey, independent voters--whose shifts in allegiance helped trigger both the big Democratic gains of 2006 and last year's Republican revival--display little faith in either party, and register a strong initial inclination to vote against their own incumbent member of Congress. Not only a solid majority of independents, but also a surprisingly large share of Republican and Democratic partisans, say they are reluctant to give either party control of both chambers, preferring instead a divided government where both can "act as a check on each other."

All of this points toward more volatility ahead after three consecutive elections in which control of at least 20 House seats has changed hands between the parties--the first time that many seats have shifted that often since the immediate aftermath of World War II.

In recent decades, the closest America has come to a true "throw the bums out" election was the scandal-shrouded, recession-colored redistricting year of 1992, when 13 Republican and 30 Democratic House incumbents were ousted and another 65 members retired. This survey highlights the possibility that incumbents in both parties could face similar risks in 2012, another redistricting year shaped by economic and political discontent.

The Congressional Connection Poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which surveyed 1,008 adults by landline and cell phone from Dec. 8-11. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

The poll finds Congress receiving a positive year-end grade from a proportion of the public so small that it would seem members' supporters consist of little more than friends and immediate family.

Just 7 percent of those surveyed said that Congress this year had accomplished more than in other recent sessions. Fully 51 percent said it had accomplished less, while 34 percent said it had accomplished about the same.
That's the highest proportion of adults who have rated Congress's accomplishments as below-average in any previous Congressional Connection Poll or Pew Research Center poll since 1998. By comparison, only 36 percent said Congress had accomplished less than usual in a survey just before the GOP recaptured the House and severely reduced the Democratic Senate majority in 2010; only 43 percent had rendered a similarly negative verdict just before Democrats recaptured both the House and Senate in 2006.

This judgment produced rare agreement across party lines: sixty percent of Republicans and 51 percent of both Democrats and independents said this Congress had accomplished less than usual.

Similarly, just 6 percent said the two parties this year had worked together more than usual to solve problems; fully 80 percent said they had been bickering and opposing one another more than usual. That essentially ties the Congressional Connection Poll result from last summer as the most negative response on that question since the Pew Research Center began measuring it in 1998. The share of adults who say Washington is bickering more than usual is significantly higher than even during the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998.

In this swirl of discontent, President Obama receives slightly better marks than either party in Congress. Asked who has provided "the most responsible leadership this year on the key problems facing the country," a modest 34 percent plurality picked Obama, while 14 percent identified Democrats in Congress. Just 23 percent picked congressional Republicans as the most responsible, while an eyebrow-raising 20 percent of adults said none of them had demonstrated leadership.

Among independents, the number finding little leadership in any corner spiked to 29 percent. Only 57 percent of Republicans identified the congressional GOP as the most responsible; by contrast, over 80 percent of Democratic voters picked either Obama or congressional Democrats.

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

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

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