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Friday, August 13, 2010

What About After November?

It's been a media theme for some time now; voters have turned on Obama. He's an incredibly unpopular president and this means Democrats are doomed. Never mind that Obama's approvals are similar to Ronald Reagan's at the same point in his presidency and that Bush left office with ratings much, much worse, Barack Obama's is a failed presidency and the electorate is going to let him know it. Republicans are now the most popular thing since the hula hoop. Which makes a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll a little problematic. Yes, the president's disapprovals are still higher than his approvals, but compared to everyone else, he's a freakin' hero to the American people.

poll graphic
Click for full-sized graphic

How backwards are the fact in comparison to the media narrative here? 47% approve of the president, 33% approve of congressional Democrats, and only 24% approve of Republicans in congress. And Democrats come out on top in the generic ballot -- but not by much.

Ezra Klein:

...So Democrats are both better liked and less disliked than Republicans. But despite the Democrats' 13 percent advantage, the congressional ballot is essentially tied: 43 percent want Democrats to hold Congress and 42 percent want to hand it to Republicans.

In other words, voters don't like Obama, but 70 percent think he's doing as well or better than could be expected. Democrats are substantially more popular than Republicans -- and Obama, who is a Democrat, is more popular than both -- but they're tied in the congressional ballot. This isn't a very sure-footed electorate with strong opinions about who should be running the country and how. This is a frustrated electorate with strong opinions that everyone involved in running the country right now is doing a poor job of it.

In other words, despite the Republicans being the least popular group in Washington, they're likely to make some gains. And the reason is pretty simple -- Democrats have more incumbents in a year where voters aren't very happy with anyone. But gains in November could backfire on a party running mostly on blame.

"[T]hese numbers present a warning to Republicans: Voters may support them in November and give them big gains, but if they don’t deliver, they could be in trouble," writes Linda Feldman for the Christian Science Monitor. "This is particularly so if the Republicans take over at least the House and don’t accomplish much, they could be short-timers."

And, unless they make a drastic change in course somewhere along the way, Republicans won't accomplish much. Their economic ideas are snake-oil and their plan to extend Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy would balloon the deficit. It's a lot easier to throw out crazy ideas when those ideas are protected from failure by virtue of having no chance of ever being tried, but get into a position where you actually have to do something and suddenly stupid economic plans have consequences. Working against the GOP is President Obama's unfortunate reflex toward compromise -- some of these ideas would be tried.

It's hard to see a situation where the Republicans haven't already dug their long-term electorate grave. If they take both chambers, their obstructionist strategy is out the window -- they have to produce results. And history shows that in a battle of wills between a president and congress, the president wins in the court of public opinion. If they take one chamber, their obstructionism will likely continue and the electorate will hold them accountable for a lack of results. Finally, if they take neither chamber (at this point, in my opinion, still the most likely scenario), then the base collapses -- the mood out there isn't optimism, it's certainty. A loss would mean that their best efforts had failed and, really, how could the Republican base try harder? In the event of a Democrat-controlled Washington in 2011, the base would go even crazier and break down into infighting and conspiracy theorizing about stolen elections (possible bonus consequence: maybe they start taking voting machine critics and electoral reformers more seriously, if for the wrong reasons -- more likely though is that they accuse undocumented immigrants of
illegally voting for Democrats).

Whatever the outcome in November, it could be that Republicans will look back at the 2010 elections as the point where everything began to go wrong.


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