WASHINGTON — "Surprise!" may be the most commonly heard word in election news coverage tonight. Several incumbents from both parties who once seemed invulnerable are headed for political upsets. Far from being the "Seinfeld election" a contest about nothing in particular voters have transformed the midterm races into vehicles to express their disappointment and anger. The reason is simple: Far from performing to public expectations, government, business, and even religious institutions are now viewed as deficient stewards of the nation's values.
All the renewed confidence in government and revived religious and community values following Sept. 11 lasted until last summer. Today, fewer than half trust the government to do the right thing. Church attendance has likewise fallen to pre-Sept. 11 levels. Clearly, the corporate malfeasance on Wall Street and the sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church have contributed to this erosion of confidence. At a time when citizens needed the comfort of familiar leaders and institutions, these outrages have threatened personal security as much as any terrorist attack.
The corrosive effects of these scandals has spread to everyone holding the public's trust. After the disastrous summer drop in the stock market, President Bush's job performance rating dropped 14 points. Seventy-four percent say they have less confidence in corporate America; 53 percent have less confidence in the Republicans in Congress; 48 percent have less confidence in the Bush administration; and 46 percent have less confidence in the congressional Democrats.
Voters are angry. This is especially evident in the low reelection poll numbers for several incumbent governors that have held for much of this campaign season.
According to the latest MSNBC/Zogby tracking polls, 43 percent of Floridians likely to vote want someone new. In Arkansas and Texas, those figures are 46 percent and 43 percent respectively. Voter desire for a fresh face in their state's executive mansions is a boon to Democrats. Looking at gubernatorial races overall, Democrats seem poised to even the score.
Before Democrats start rejoicing, however, the pervasive anti-incumbent mood could cost them control of the US Senate where several key Democratic incumbents who are up for re-election are in political trouble. These include South Dakota's Tim Johnson, Missouri's Jean Carnahan, and Georgia's Max Cleland. According to our latest tracking polls, for example, only 46 percent say Mr. Johnson and Ms. Carnahan deserve to be elected. But neither can Republicans celebrate just yet. In New Hampshire, Sen. Bob Smith has already been defeated in that state's GOP primary. Meanwhile, in Arkansas and Colorado, Republican Sens. Tim Hutchinson and Wayne Allard remain in serious trouble. According to ou latest tracking polls, just 42 percent of Arkansans think their incumbent senator should be reelected; in Colorado, only 40 percent want the incumbent to have another term.
The dissatisfaction with the status-quo may also contribute to several upsets in key House races. This election season we've polled three House races that featured first-time and underfunded challengers against Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, Rep. Michael Bilirakis of Florida, and Rep. James Walsh of New York. The numbers were soft enough to suggest that these could have been competitive races.
Nationwide, we expect to see incumbents with softer than expected support, which may result in some unanticipated defeats.
So, watch for surprises. Incumbents whose job security once seemed assured are going to be fired. Voters want "a reformer with results" as Mr. Bush so aptly put it in 2000. So far, they haven't found one.
John Zogby is president and chief executive officer of Zogby International. John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and author of 'The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition.'