Yesterday morning, the news from Gallup was rather subtle. Their latest survey showed a dead heat on the generic Congressional ballot between Democrats and Republicans, with only the enthusiasm gap giving indications of midterm troubles for Democrats. By the late afternoon, Gallup had a warning of epic disaster for incumbents:
A record-low percentage of U.S. voters — 28% — say most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected. The previous low was 29% in October 1992.
The trend for previous midterm elections reveals that the 28% re-elect figure puts the sitting majority party in a danger zone. In the two recent midterm elections in which the congressional balance of power changed (1994 and 2006), the percentage of voters saying most members deserved to be re-elected fell below 40%, as it does today. By contrast, in 1998 and 2002, when the existing Republican majority was maintained, 55% or better held this view.
Additionally, 65% of registered voters — the highest in Gallup history, and by far the highest in any recent midterm year — now say most members of Congress do not deserve re-election.
This strong rebuke of congressional incumbents comes from a March 26-28 USA Today/Gallup survey. The same poll finds 49% of voters, a near-record low, saying their own member of Congress deserves to be re-elected. This marks only the second time since Gallup began asking this question in 1992 that the figure has dipped below 50%, and the first on the doorstep of a midterm election.
How bad are these results? Consider the numbers from Gallup in 1994, on the eve of the last midterms that Democrats lost a majority. They had survived a 58% peak of incumbent rejection two years earlier, but lost over 5o seats in 1994 with a 49/37 split in favor of tossing incumbents.
That twelve-point split looks like a slice of heaven in retrospect. Now it’s more than three times as large at 37 points, 65/28. Moreover, it appears that Democrats fundamentally misread their previous successes. In 2006, they won the majorities when the anti-incumbent fervor peaked again at 52/38, but that actually plateaued for the next two years. As in 1992, Democrats got rescued in the election by a popular, charismatic presidential contender. Since gaining complete control in 2009, their radical agenda has created a huge backlash against incumbents.
What may be worse, independents are almost identical to Republicans in wanting to clean house. The split goes to 72/25 among unaffiliated voters, not far off from the 83/13 of Republicans. Democrats hardly have enthusiasm for incumbents, either, only preferring them over generic challengers by a 46/41 margin.
Gallup says that these results are “like nothing Gallup has seen in the past four midterm election cycles.” The results of this anti-incumbent anger could also be something we’ve not seen before, either, or at least not since 1994.