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Trouble Ahead For Congressional Democrats

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September 2, 2010

Quite a number of commentators have expressed shock in reaction to a recent Gallup Poll pitting a “generic Democrat” against a “generic Republican” for Congress.  As of August 30, the Democrat was trailing by a huge, 10-point margin (51% to 41%).  Gallup described it as “the largest in Gallup’s history of tracking the midterm generic ballot for Congress”.  An examination of the graph reveals that the hypothetical Democrat’s 49-43 lead in mid-July was lost approximately one week later.

There has been widespread speculation as to the cause of this reversal of fortune.  Byron York wrote a piece for The Washington Examiner, which considered a more recent Gallup Poll, pinpointing the particular issues where the Republican position was more popular.  Mr. York then provided his own opinions as to why and how the “generic Democrat” was faltering on some of these issues.  With respect to the economy, York said this:

In October 2006, Democrats held a 53 to 37 lead over Republicans on the issue.  Now, after Democrats passed an $862 billion stimulus bill and touted 2010 as the “summer of recovery,” Republicans hold a 49 to 38 lead.  Democrats have gone from having a 16 point lead to being 11 points behind.

As for the problem of corruption in government, York gave this interpretation of the polling results:

Back in ’06, a large majority — 51 percent to 28 percent — trusted Democrats more than Republicans to deal with the issue.  Now, with Democrats facing high-profile ethics proceedings in Congress, Republicans hold a 38 to 35 lead.

The subject of terrorism was another area where Mr. York offered his opinion on the public’s renewed preference for Republican stewardship:

Just before the ’06 elections, Democrats held a 47 to 42 lead on protecting against terrorism.  Now, after Ft. Hood, Detroit, and the Times Square bombing attempt, Republicans hold a 55 to 31 lead.

I have a different perspective on what has been motivating the voters to favor a “generic Republican” candidate.  Given the format of the poll, I believe the responses are rooted in archetypal motivations rather than the positions and actions of individual candidates on particular issues.  For example, consider the timing:  Late July was when President Obama was taking his umpteenth vacation and playing golf for the zillionth time.  Democrats from the Senate (more so than Congressional Dems) had just sold out to Wall Street by completely eviscerating the so-called, financial “reform” bill, making it as much of a farce as their healthcare “reform” artifice.  The two “reform” shams were widely perceived as a betrayal of the Democratic Party “base” by both houses of Congress as well as the Obama administration.  The aggregate impact of those two legislative hoaxes impacted the public’s understanding of the extent to which corruption and economic irresponsibility were apparent in their Democratic leaders.  I don’t believe it’s so much a problem with excessive spending (i.e. stimulus efforts) as it is with plain-old sleaziness.  “Countrywide Chris” Dodd’s skullduggery is more likely seen as a serious problem than the antics of Charlie Rangel and company.

President Obama’s inability to take a decisive position on anything – his constant attempts to travel up the fork in the road – are recognized as weak leadership, which is then reinforced as a trait of all Democrats.  The constant golfing and vacationing during this crucial period have helped augment the image of a dilettante — as well as an ineffective and/or unconcerned official.  As a result, voters are less confident that these leaders can protect them from terrorism.  When a terrorist succeeds, that event magnifies the perceived weakness, regardless of whether and how many other attempted terrorist schemes may have been thwarted under the current administration.

Meanwhile, pollster Nate Silver has come along to tell us that we’re all reading too much into those recent Gallup Polls.  In an article for The New York Times, Mr. Silver benefited the rest of us with his unique Brainiac perspective:

The reasons for the Democrats’ decline are, as we say in the business, overdetermined.  That is, there are no lack of hypotheses to explain it:  lots of causes for this one effect.  The economy?  Sure.  Unpopular legislation like health care?  Yep.  Some “bad luck” events like the Gulf Oil spill?  Mmm-hmm.  The new energy breathed into conservatives by the Tea Party movement?  Uh-huh.

And this hardly exhausts the theories.  An inexperienced White House that has sometimes been surprisingly inept at coping with the 24/7 news media cycle?  The poor optics associated with Democrats having had a filibuster-proof majority in theory, but not always in practice?  All of the above.

These causes can’t be so easily untangled on the basis of polling evidence; there’s really no basis on which to evaluate the competing hypotheses.  This is particularly so given that different types of political events aren’t isolated from one another — health care reform might have been unpopular, for instance, but the reason for its unpopularity may ultimately have been the economy.

For this reason, we can be skeptical of two types of analysis: claiming that Factor X definitely isn’t contributing to the Democrats’ troubles, and asserting that it definitely is.

Regardless of the cause, the Democrats are headed for serious trouble in November.  As far as I’m concerned:  It serves them right.