Our federal lawmakers have managed to unite Americans on an important issue: Democrats, Republicans, and independents disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. In all three groups, according to Gallup, approval of the institution falls below 20 percent.
Split-party control is one reason. Democrats dislike the GOP majority in the House, Republicans dislike the Democratic majority in the Senate, and independents dislike the fighting between the two chambers. Things were different two years ago, when both houses were under Democratic control. In the spring of 2009, Congress’s approval rating was 20 percent among Republicans, 29 percent among independents, but 63 percent among Democrats.
The current levels of disapproval are more than a matter of mere partisanship, however. Because of a weak economy and a mounting national debt, Americans are broadly unhappy with the way the federal government is working.
A majority of respondents told NBC pollsters that, if it were possible, they would vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress, including their own representative. Surveys also show that most Americans don’t think that President Obama deserves reelection.
So will voters sweep everybody out next year?
Three possible scenarios
Although it’s theoretically possible that the electorate could turn against incumbents of both parties, such a result would be unprecedented in the modern era.
When large numbers of lawmakers go down, the bulk of the losses come from one party or the other. It’s even harder to picture a situation where voters would oust both Mr. Obama and the Republican majority in Congress. Other election scenarios are more plausible.
The first is the Truman 1948 scenario. That is, a feisty president rallies support, wins an upset victory, and restores his party to power on Capitol Hill. But as political scientist Brendan Nyhan has pointed out, it’s a myth that Harry S. Truman won because of his “give ’em hell” style. He won because the economy was doing well for most of 1948, and Democrats had a big lead in party identification.
Neither of those conditions seems likely for 2012.
The status quo
The second is the status quo scenario. Voters retain both the incumbent president and the current House majority. In light of voter dissatisfaction, this outcome may seem far-fetched. But remember that in the past four presidential reelections under divided government – 1956, 1972, 1984, and 1996 – voters indeed kept the opposition party in control of the House.
The 2012 election is taking place under very different circumstances. Still, one could picture Obama edging out a GOP nominee weakened by gaffes or scandals – and the people keeping the House Republicans in power as a check on the White House.
The party sweep
The third and simplest is the party sweep scenario. Voters kick out the president and his congressional party. If the economy remains weak and if the Republicans nominate an acceptable presidential candidate, this scenario is the likeliest.
It’s possible that we could have a new Republican president coming in with clear majorities in both the House and Senate – something that hasn’t happened since 1928. (Eisenhower in 1953 and George W. Bush in 2001 both had evenly divided Senates.)
The good news for Republicans is that they would have total control. The bad news for Republicans is that they would have total responsibility. They would be facing both enormous fiscal challenges and a highly skeptical public. They would thus have to produce big deficit reduction and economic growth at the same time.
Maybe they’d be lucky and worldwide economic conditions would enable them to make progress on both fronts. But it seems more realistic to expect that they would fall short and face a new wave of voter anger in the 2014 midterm.
A new political scene?
Could this wrath disrupt the party system?
Most Americans already dislike both major parties and think that a third party is necessary. It would be difficult to translate this sentiment into political change. New parties face tough barriers, including state laws that hinder their access to the ballot and campaign finance rules that put them at a fundraising disadvantage.
Yet “difficult” does not mean “impossible.” If Republicans and Democrats continue to underperform, the hunger for another option may grow. If we have learned one thing during the economic crisis, it’s that nothing is permanent.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He is coauthor of “American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship.”