Poll: Opinion of Democrats, Not Republicans, Determines Majorities

If the 2010 midterms sweep Republicans into power in the House of Representatives, Democratic struggles may have more to do with it than a GOP resurgence.

That seems to be the lesson of a new poll from Gallup, which shows that national public opinion on Republicans has been basically the same in 1994, 2006, and 2010, while opinion on Democrats has swung drastically over those election years.

In other words: only public opinion on Democrats has correlated to major shifts in partisan momentum.

In 1994, 2006, and 2010, Republicans consistently saw results between 40% and 43% when Gallup asked respondents whether the GOP could bring about the change the country needs, was able to manage the government effectively, and had mostly honest and ethical members in Congress. Only one aberration occured: in 1994, Republicans polled worse on the honesty question, with 34% of respondents seeing Republican lawmakers as mostly honest and ethical.

Public opinion also remained relatively static on whether Republicans had a clear plan for solving the country's problems: Each year saw a result between 28% and 32%.

On any one of these questions, opinion on the GOP never varied by more than the surveys' +/- 4% margins of error.

Democrats, meanwhile, have seen their popularity swing wildly on the same questions. Between 1994 and 2006, the year they took control of the House and Senate, Democrats improved by 16% on whether they could bring about the changes the country needs, 23% on whether they were able to manage the government effectively, 20% on whether they had mostly honest and ethical members in Congress, and 10% on whether they had a clear plan for solving the country's problems.

At their 2006 levels, Democrats ranked higher than Republicans did in either of their momentum years of 1994 or 2006. While Republicans ranked in the low-40% range, Democrats saw results of 59%, 57%, and 54% on the first three questions.

Since 2006, Democrats have fallen significantly and are a now a shade more popular on each question than they were in 1994. They've fallen 19% on bringing about change, 18% on managing government, 15% on honesty and ethics, and 7% on having a plan for the country's problems.

So it's not that Americans like the Republican Party in 2010 any more than they used to, Gallup tells us: it's that they've lost confidence in Democrats.

One can interpret these results in vastly different ways, but they show that 1) Democratic fortunes oscillate more drastically, 2) poll respondents didn't, in any of those three years, voice a whole lot of confidence in Republicans (the GOP never rated above 43% on any of these questions), and 3) for some reason, disparity in party popularity is transposed onto the Democratic Party, not onto the GOP.

Although the GOP was rated the same in 2006, it's tough to argue that the GOP was as popular in that year as it was in 1994, and that GOP unpopularity didn't factor tremendously into the Democratic takeover that year. The Iraq war and GOP ethics scandals dominated those elections, but, for some reason, Americans responded to these events by telling Gallup they liked Democrats more, not Republicans less.

Americans' willingness to change its opinion on one side but not the other, one can surmise, speaks to a mutability in perceptions of what the Democratic Party actually is, or at least in whether it's right for the moment. Which is a strange thing to think about.