Why this could be the year of the unhappy voter

Since 1998, the more voters disapprove of Congress, the greater the turnout in midterms, Gallup finds. So with Congress's job approval in the dumps, this could be a banner year. But which party benefits?

Danny Johnston/AP/File
Sen. Mark Pryor speaks to members of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock, Ark., this August. He's in a tight race this fall.

Are unhappy voters more motivated voters?

That’s the implication from a new analysis by the Gallup poll’s Jeffrey Jones, who has found a correlation between low approval of Congress and higher turnout in the past five midterm elections.

The difference is modest. In 2010, when Congress’s job approval was 21 percent, turnout was 40.9 percent of the voting eligible population. In 2002, when 50 percent of American adults – 50 percent! – approved of the job Congress was doing, 39.5 percent of eligible voters turned out.

Forty percent seems to be the magic number. In all five of the most recent midterms, starting in 1998, turnout was above 40 percent when congressional job approval was below 40 percent, and vice versa.

Today, congressional job approval is an abysmal 13 percent, per Gallup. And even that is up from 9 percent last November, an all-time Gallup low. So maybe we’re in for higher-than-usual turnout this November.

The gazillion-dollar question is, which party will benefit?

Republicans seem to have the energy. They’re really unhappy with President Obama, though he’s not on the ballot. But they can take out their frustrations on Democrats, especially in states with competitive Senate races. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take over the Senate, and that looks entirely doable. Political oddsmaker Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight calls the Republicans slight favorites to take over the Senate.  

But Democrats aren’t just sitting there. They’re quietly organizing up a storm in the battleground states, as Molly Ball of the Atlantic reports in her story from Arkansas.

Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas is one of the most vulnerable Democrats this cycle, and all the organizing in the world might not save his job. But the Democrats aren’t giving up. And they’re building on their success in 2012, when they scored improbable Senate victories in Montana and North Dakota, both red states that went heavily for Mitt Romney over Mr. Obama.  

“This year marks Democrats’ attempt to roll out the program on a national scale,” Ms. Ball writes. “Dubbed the Bannock Street Project … it will, by the time the election is over, comprise a 4,000-employee, $60 million effort in 10 states.”

In the end, big unhappiness with Congress may give neither party an advantage, suggests Mr. Jones, Gallup’s managing editor. The Republicans have a near-certain lock on the House, and Obama is president until January 2017. So divided government is here to stay for the next two-plus years.

“If many voters see little possibility of changing the partisan makeup of government after this fall's elections – given that a divided government is already in place and almost certainly will be after the elections – there could be no increase in turnout this year despite Americans' frustration with Congress,” writes Jones.

“However, if voters have designs on changing the government and see a good chance that they can do so – perhaps by voting against incumbents of both parties – then turnout may rise, as in similar past elections.”

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