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  • Meagan Dorsch
    Director of Public Affairs
  • Jon Kuhl
    Public Affairs Specialist
    Washington, DC
Aug. 11, 2011

Political peril ahead for incumbents, pollsters say

Voters' dismal outlook on the country's direction means President Obama, members of Congress and state lawmakers will face tough re-election bids.

SAN ANTONIO—Americans’ views on the economy and the direction of the country don’t bode well for President Obama’s re-election chances. In fact, incumbents of both parties and at all levels of government are in danger of being turned out, a pair of pollsters told NCSL attendees at its final plenary session Thursday.

“We could see another clean sweep election as a way of the American public saying, ‘Do you get the message yet?’ ” Democratic pollster Peter Hart said. Neil Newhouse, his Republican counterpart, said there was potential for the GOP to capture the White House and U.S. Senate but simultaneously lose control of the House.

Both cited recent polls taken regarding the debt ceiling agreement that arose from acrimonious negotiations. More than three-quarters of those questioned thought the parties acted like spoiled children rather than mature adults, using words such as “ridiculous” and “frustrating” to describe the process.

Even before recent events, Americans’ outlook on the future of the country was dismal. There have been 92 straight months—nearly eight years—of pessimism about the nation’s direction. “This is the longest sustained period of pessimism that we’ve ever measured in this country,” Newhouse said. In the latest polls, taken in July before the debt ceiling deal, people held a negative opinion of the nation’s direction by a 67-25 margin.

That poll is a strong indicator of party retention of the presidency, Newhouse said. “When Americans say things are going in the right direction, they re-elect incumbents. When they say we’re on the wrong track, they kick them out of office. It’s really as simple as that.”

For Obama to win a second term, that “right direction” number must rise at least into the 30s, the two agreed. The president’s personal approval ratings are running 20-25 points higher than general direction numbers, leaving him currently with a 47 percent approval rating. Barring a strong third-party campaign, those numbers must surge for his re-election hopes. “You simply do not win re-election with those numbers,” Hart said.

The president does hold one thing in his favor: His overwhelming capacity to raise campaign funds.  “Regardless of his numbers right now, regardless of the economy, the guy’s going to raise a billion dollars,” Newhouse said. Combined with a bruising Republican primary, the president will have a huge war chest to spread his message.

Federal legislators also are endangered, they noted. One recent poll found only 17 percent of respondents would vote to re-elect their member of Congress, compared to 69 percent who were likely to vote for someone else. The setting is ripe for an unprecedented fourth straight wave election, following party switches of more than 20 seats in 2006, 2008, and 2010.

State legislators will not be exempt, either. Many voters do not distinguish between federal- and state-level officials when venting their frustrations on incumbents, and budget deadlocks in state legislatures only reinforce that conflation.

The key to any campaign will be demographics, they said. Both George W. Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008 won the white vote by 12 points—but the growing size of the minority vote meant McCain lost the overall race. Minority voters will still likely vote for Obama in 2012, but the enthusiasm may depress turnout in those communities, they said.

In addition, there were more voters in the 18-29 age range in the 2008 election than senior citizens. That crowd was key to Obama’s campaign strategy, but more young people are now leaning Republican.

The electorate also is becoming more polarized. Newhouse noted that in polling for this week’s Wisconsin recall elections, 100 percent of Republicans intended to vote for the GOP candidate. That makes independents the kingmakers. Indeed, they solidly supported Democrats in 2008 and Republicans in 2010. Plainly stated, “Independents decide elections,” Newhouse said.

NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.