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.