4/6: The 2010 Congressional Elections: 1994 Meet 2008

By Dr. Lee M. Miringoff

The health care debate was certainly about health care, but it was also about the mid-term elections.   Pundits, pollsters, and pols are assessing the potential impact of congressional action against the backdrop of what it may mean for November.  So-called generic ballot questions have already been monitoring the ebb and flow of public sentiment.  If change is still in the air, will the Democrats suffer because they are now the incumbent party and had a sloppy time getting health care passed?  Or, have the Republicans overplayed their hand by appealing too much to their unwieldy base to the displeasure of more moderate voters?  Will the Tea Party movement turn out to be a blessing or a curse for GOP candidates?

miringoff-caricature-430The most recent national Marist Poll tried to gauge the electorate on these matters.

President Obama dragged some of his congressional party members across the health care finish line, but will he be an asset or liability to them at election time?  Certainly, President Obama’s opponents are now hard-pressed to claim that he has failed to achieve a major accomplishment.  Over 80% of the electorate thinks he has brought about significant change.  But, voters divide over whether health care reform is change for the better or change for the worse; whether it is a milestone or a mistake.  This battle is ongoing.

The bigger picture:  Although a majority of voters nationwide disapprove of how President Obama is handling health care, his approval rating is within striking distance of the share of the vote he received when he was elected in 2008. Also, his favorability score is above 50%.  On the all-important economic front, 64% nationwide still think current economic conditions are mostly something President Obama inherited.  These are all points in the president’s favor.

Recent beltway battles have further fractured the partisan divide and fueled the Tea Party movement.  This is a development of uncertain electoral payoff for the GOP.  Will the Tea Partiers support Republican candidates a la Massachusetts or challenge more middle-of-the-road Republicans by encouraging others to run.  One major beneficiary of this movement has been Sarah Palin who is cornering the market of the “send them a message” crowd.  The big unknown is whether she can ride this ticket to the White House in 2012, or will this newfound political energy derail by then?

Although speculation about the 2012 timetable has already begun, first things first.  The train for 2010 has barely left the station.  For many voters, recent D.C. fisticuffs represent a plague on both the Republican and Democratic congressional party houses. 52% of voters think Republicans in Congress have not been playing by the rules and have been acting inappropriately.  49% feel that way about the Democrats.   Republican voters tell us they are more likely to vote for someone new come November.   Democratic voters are more likely to support their current congressperson.

No one will argue against the likelihood of the GOP picking up seats.  But, anything close to the average net gain for the out party will leave them short of re-claiming majority status in either chamber.  The morning line is that both will end up being able to salvage some element of victory as Republicans pick up seats, yet Democrats maintain control.