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In his column last week in the National Journal, political analyst Charlie Cook suggested that the poll trends he identified last summer have “fully developed into at least a Category 3 or 4 Hurricane,” meaning that the storm that’s brewing is strong enough to significantly alter the political landscape in favor of the GOP. Of course, a lot could change between now and November, yet public attitudes today look increasingly like those in 1994, when polls predicted a Category 5 storm and Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
CBS News pollsters noted in the summer of 1994 that ratings of Bill Clinton’s performance in office “continue to sag, but evaluations of congressional performance are even worse.” Although President Obama’s approval rating has held steady recently, it isn’t significantly different from Clinton’s in the summer before his first midterm elections. In July 1994, 42% approved of the job President Clinton was doing. Forty-six percent approve of the job Obama is doing in Gallup’s latest.
In July 1994 27% of those surveyed by Gallup approved of the job Congress was doing. Congress’ rating in the July 2010 Gallup poll is 20%.
President Clinton was struggling to move a health care reform bill forward. A headline from a Times Mirror poll (now the Pew Research Center) summed up feelings about it: “Gloomy Doctors and Scared Public Spurn Clinton Plan But Favor Reform Principles.” Sound familiar? In most polls today, people are divided and tilting slightly against the Obama health care bill, but they still like the idea of reforming the health care system.
Thirty-six percent approved of the way Clinton was handling the economy in the Gallup poll; today 37% approve of Obama’s stewardship. A cluster of issues (crime, health care and the economy) topped the public’s list of concerns in the summer of 1994; today the economy and jobs dominate all others.
In the summer of 1994 there wasn’t much evidence that most Americans were thinking about the election. The country was riveted by the trial of football player O.J. Simpson, who was charged for murdering his wife and a friend in Los Angeles. Times Mirror noted that interest in the news about Simpson was far greater than interest in health reform or reports that North Korea was building nuclear weapons and wouldn’t allow U.N. inspections. Two-thirds in the July Gallup poll thought the charges against Simpson were definitely or probably true. Today Americans are following news about the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico most closely, with interest in the election for most people far behind.
So what about the elections? When asked in the summer of 1994 whether they would vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate for Congress, 45% told Gallup that they would vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress, and 46% for the Republican. Today, those responses among registered voters are 44% and 46% respectively. Gallup noted in a recent release that “a slight Republican lead on the generic ballot among registered voters–or even a statistical tie–would translate into sizable Republican seat gains in Congress on Election Day, given their typical advantage in voter turnout.” Pew’s latest responses are similar to Gallup’s, with registered voters divided evenly, 45% to 45% about their vote this fall.
In the summer of 1994 the pollsters were seeing tentative evidence of a big change election, but the idea that Republicans could actually recapture the House seemed far-fetched. In a release from August 1994, Gallup noted that if the Republicans maintained the lead they had, the party could “come close to winning a majority in the House.”
All pollsters today show that Republicans are more enthusiastic about voting this fall than are Democrats. In Pew’s July poll, 56% of Republican voters said they were more enthusiastic about voting this year than in previous midterms. In another parallel, Pew noted that this is “the highest percentage of GOP voters expressing increased enthusiasm about voting in midterm elections dating back to 1994.”
Picking up 39 seats the GOP needs to regain the House is a tall order, and a lot can happen in the next four months, but the winds blowing in the GOP direction are gale force.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.
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