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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Towering Wave of Alienation”

There’s been a lot of puzzled commentary on polls taken after the debt limit deal showing that Americans were not, by and large, all that grateful for the avoidance of a debt default calamity. But National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein looks at the numbers and sees the possibility of something that’s never really happened in American political history: a full-on bipartisan rejection of incumbents from both parties.

In a CNN/ORC poll conducted on Monday and released on Tuesday, just 14 percent of those surveyed said they approved of the way Congress is handling its job, while 84 percent disapproved. That was not only the lowest level of approval, and the highest level of disapproval, that the CNN poll has recorded — the gap between the approval and disapproval numbers were as wide as Gallup has recorded in any of its polls measuring congressional performance dating back to 1974. The public verdict on Congress today is more negative than it was just before the election landslides that switched control of Congress in 1994, 2006, and 2010: Gallup surveys in the fall of those years put congressional approval between 21 percent and 26 percent….
Among independents, Congress’ approval rating in the new CNN poll stood at just 11 percent. That’s significantly worse even than the results in an October 2006 CNN survey conducted shortly before the wave that swept Democrats to control of both chambers that year: at that point 26 percent of independents approved of the performance of the Republican-controlled Congress.

Since control of Congress is divided, the kind of “anti-incumbent backlash” that those citing widespread unhappiness with the status quo often predict would have to hit both parties, with voters, moreover, splitting tickets between presidential and congressional candidates. In reality, though, as Brownstein acknowledges, ticket-splitting isn’t remotely as common a practice as it used to be, and a big percentage of self-identified “independents” really aren’t.
But if “wrong track” sentiment is unlikely to hit both parties equally, it certainly can have that effect over time in an unstable electorate and political system, as Browstein notes:

[E]nduring shifts in political advantage have punctuated most of American political history: Democrats in 1800, 1828, and 1932, and Republicans in 1860 and 1896 each engineered decisive shifts in voter allegiance that allowed them to hold both the White House and Congress for most of the next generation. But since 1968, neither side has managed such a breakthrough or built such an abiding connection with voters. Over the past four decades, the result has been to make divided control of Congress and the White House much more common than at any previous point in American history. Lately, that instability has been compounded by more rapid turnover in control of the House and Senate.

Considering the changes in the composition of Congress since the day before the 2006 elections, that’s an understatement.

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