Public Opinion Watch: Things Look Bad for Incumbents

Plus: Hispanics are bailing on the GOP; the public supports raising the minimum wage; the economy isn’t so great.


Article created by The Century Foundation.

Forecast for Incumbents: Bad to Very Bad

There are lots of good reasons why the incumbent party–the GOP–may succeed in retaining control of Congress this year, despite the unfavorable political climate. These reasons are well-summarized by Charlie Cook in his January 6 National Overview of the political situation on his website. Cook provides all the details about open seats, incumbent strength and numbers of seats currently deemed competitive. The math these details imply is indeed helpful to the Republicans and I will not rehearse it here.

What it means, though, is that the GOP is unlikely to get dislodged unless an intense anti-incumbent mood moves a significant number of races from the noncompetitive to competitive category. Could that happen? Possibly. Because one thing that does seem to be developing is just such an intense anti-incumbent mood unlike anything seen in American politics since–you guessed it–1994.

As the USA Today story on the latest Gallup poll observes:

“Views of whether most members of Congress and the respondents’ own representatives deserve re-election have sunk to levels not seen since 1994, when Democrats lost control of both houses….

Attitudes toward the Republican congressional leadership have soured. By 50%-40%, those surveyed say the policies proposed by Republican leaders in Congress would move the country in the wrong direction. That’s by far the worst showing since the GOP took control more than a decade ago….

For the first time since 1994, a plurality of Americans say most members of Congress don’t deserve re-election. The 42% who say most members do deserve re-election is the same as in the first USA TODAY survey of 1994.

Typically, voters feel more favorably about their own representatives than they do most members of Congress. That’s still true — 60% say their representatives deserve re-election — but that figure is the lowest since 1994, and almost the same as in the first poll taken that tumultuous year.”

A recent Hotline analysis underscored the danger level for incumbents by looking at another set of indicators: congressional and presidential approval. Going back to 1990, they found a strong relationship between levels of approval, especially congressional, in January/February of the election year and congressional results for the incumbent party in that November’s election. Again, only 1994 (31 percent approval/61 percent disapproval) has congressional approval numbers as low as we are now seeing (31/58)–indeed none of the other years are even close. But there is one way in which this year does look different from 1994–only it’s worse for the incumbent party. In early 1994, Clinton’s approval rating was averaging about 54 percent–today Bush is averaging only around 42 percent.

So, if an anti-incumbent mood is what’s needed for big change, we’ve got it. And with the Abramoff scandal just taking off, it is likely that anti-incumbent mood will only strengthen in the coming months

Hispanics Bailing Out on GOP

The last poll of Hispanics I reviewed, in late June of last year, indicated that Hispanics were moving away from the GOP rapidly, after Republicans’ relatively good performance with this group in the 2004 election. That DCorps poll is now fairly old, so a new survey of Hispanics is certainly in order to assess whether this move away from the GOP is continuing.

The Latino Coalition, a conservative group close to the GOP, has now provided just that: a new nationwide poll of Hispanics which, as it happens, confirms the trend away from the GOP shown in the June poll. Indeed, this poll shows the GOP in even worse shape among Hispanic voters than was suggested by that earlier poll. And, given who conducted it, you certainly couldn’t accuse this new poll of Democratic bias. Indeed, Latino Coalition Hispanic polls in the past have typically produced results substantially more favorable to the GOP than contemporaneous results of DCorps and other national polls of Hispanics. So it’s a real eye-opener to get these very, very unfavorable results from this particular organization at this point in time.

Let’s start with the generic congressional contest. This poll finds Democrats with a stunning 61-21 lead over the GOP among Hispanic registered voters, which translates into a 50-point lead (75-25) among those who express a preference. The analogous figure among those who expressed preference in the June DCorps poll was “only” 36 points. By way of comparison to the last two off-year elections, 2002 and 1998, Democrats carried the congressional vote by 24 and 26 points, respectively.

The new poll also finds Democrats with a 35-point lead (58-23) in party identification among voters. Also among voters, Democrats have huge leads over Republicans as the party better able to handle a wide variety of issues: being in touch with the Hispanic community (+41); providing affordable health care (+40); improving the economy (+31 points); improving education (+30); and representing your views on immigration (+29). The one exception to this pattern is on “keeping America safe and fighting terrorism,” where the parties are dead-even (and even here, the report notes, this tie is a sharp decline from Bush’s 14-point lead over Kerry on this issue before the 2004 election).

All of this means there’s very little keeping Hispanics tied to the GOP. And a great deal that’s pushing them away. The result could be a very substantial swing back toward the Democrats in 2006.

Public Opinion on Raising the Minimum Wage

Public opinion on many policy issues can be very complicated; there are nuances to the nuances, so to speak. Raising the minimum wage, however, is not one of those issues. Public support for raising the minimum wage has been, is, and likely will continue to be very, very high. People just think it’s the right thing to do and decades of attempts by conservatives to convince the public otherwise have been an abject failure.

Consider these recently released Gallup results. The last time Gallup asked a question about whether Congress should raise the minimum wage, in November of last year, a supermajority of 83 percent said they supported such a move, compared to a minuscule 14 percent who said they opposed it. The same Gallup report notes that, for the last two decades, public support for raising the minimum wage has consistently exceeded 75 percent.

Moreover, support for raising the minimum wage is remarkably high across partisan affiliations. In the November poll mentioned above, not only did 93 percent of Democrats favor a boost in the minimum wage, so did 80 percent of independents and even 73 percent of Republicans.

The public’s view couldn’t be clearer. Now it’s up to Congress.

Maybe People Don’t Think the Economy Is So Great Because It Isn’t So Great

Last week, I pointed out that, while views of the economy had improved somewhat toward the end of last year, that didn’t mean the public now thought the economy was in good shape. They merely thought it was less bad than before.

And this week we have a new poll from Ipsos-AP that indicates views of the economy may be declining once again. From the Ipsos report on the poll:

“Despite strong job numbers for December, Americans’ confidence in the economic state of the country declined in January, according to the most recent results of the RBC CASH (Consumer Attitudes and Spending by Household) Index. This was primarily due to low expectations in economic performance over the next six months and increasing fears about job security.”

This stubborn failure of the public to get happy about fairly solid GDP and job growth has occasioned much head-scratching among the commentariat and, of course, among GOP operatives who smell a press plot to discredit Bush’s alleged economic achievements.

But there is a much, much simpler explanation for the available data: people don’t think the economy is so great because it isn’t so great. The indispensable Economic Policy Institute has produced a crisp one-page summary supporting this viewpoint. Here are some choice excerpts:

“Profits are up, but the wages and the incomes of average Americans are down.

–Inflation-adjusted hourly and weekly wages are still below where they were at the start of the recovery in November 2001. Yet, productivity—the growth of the economic pie—is up by 13.5%….

–Consequently, median household income (inflation-adjusted) has fallen five years in a row and was 4% lower in 2004 than in 1999, falling from $46,129 to $44,389.

More and more people are deeper and deeper in debt.

–The indebtedness of U.S. households, after adjusting for inflation, has risen 35.7% over the last four years.

–The level of debt as a percent of after-tax income is the highest ever measured in our history. Mortgage and consumer debt is now 115% of after-tax income, twice the level of 30 years ago….

–The personal savings rate is negative for the first time since WWII….

Rising health care costs are eroding families’ already declining income.

–Households are spending more on health care. Family health costs rose 43-45% for married couples with children, single mothers, and young singles from 2000 to 2003.

–Employers are cutting back on health insurance. Last year, the percent of people with employer-provided health insurance fell for the fourth year in a row. Nearly 3.7 million fewer people had employer-provided insurance in 2004 than in 2000. Taking population growth into account, 11 million more people would have had employer-provided health insurance in 2004 if the coverage rate had remained at the 2000 level.”

There you have it. The public’s not so crazy after all. Commentators and GOP operatives take note.