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The public attitude’s four antis

Regardless of Tuesday’s results (I am writing before the votes have been cast), the fundamental contours of public attitudes shaping this year’s electoral environment are already etched in bold relief. They can be summarized, in part, as the four antis:

• anti-politics;

• anti-incumbent;

• anti-establishment;

• and (I am sorry to say) anti-Democratic.

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Voters are clearly hostile toward Washington, but also toward politics more broadly. Though Congress has rarely been popular, and though its ratings are not directly related to the fortunes of the party in power, the institution is unusually unpopular these days. Last week, Gallup reported that congressional approval matched its all-time low, sinking below 20 percent for only the fourth time in the 34 years they have been measuring it.

Negative assessments are not confined to Congress, however. Most state legislatures suffer similar levels of public disparagement, and officeholders across the board have seen their ratings decline.

The obvious cause is the recession. It is hard for voters to survey the economic devastation around them and congratulate their leaders for a job well done.

Disaffection runs deeper than the current unemployment rate, though. Voters are convinced that politicians are taking care of big interests but not them. They see their tax dollars bailing out big banks and ask, “Where’s my bailout?” They see companies saved while their jobs are lost. (Of course, if the banks failed, even more Americans would be out of work, but counterfactuals don’t make the unemployed or their friends and families feel any better about politicians who have demonstrably not solved their very serious problems.)

Voters are also alert to the stench of partisanship — the belief that politicians not only put big interests ahead of them, but also put party above all. The constant wrangling for advantage does not inspire affection. When Pew asked voters to describe Congress in one word, “dysfunctional” topped the list.

Though these feelings are sometimes labeled “anti-Washington,” venom is frequently directed toward state capitals as well. Californians express as much concern about brawling between state legislators and their governor as they do about job loss — a striking finding, replicated elsewhere. 

Animosity toward politics naturally leads to anti-incumbent sentiment, which is revealed in poll after poll. Our own work found voters claiming to prefer challengers over incumbents by a 20-point margin. In 2002, Pew found voters by an eight-point margin saying most incumbents should be reelected. Today, by a 30-point margin, they want incumbents defeated. 

Antipathy to the establishment is a close cousin to these other antis, but it does tap a somewhat separate dimension. Win or lose, the fact that a Kentucky Republican can even do well in a Senate primary having expressed uncertainty about reelecting his potential colleague as minority leader is all the evidence of this trend one needs, though it is also captured in polls and focus groups. Support from the establishment is not the kiss of death, but people believe “insiders” of all sorts do not have their interests at heart.

Some Democrats argue this presages as much trouble for Republican incumbents as for their own. I fear they delude themselves. Yes, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was defeated — but by other Republicans. Voters know Democrats are in charge, and they are not happy with us. Pew reports a 31-point net swing toward unfavorable views of the Democratic Party since 2006. To be sure, Republicans are equally unpopular, but the momentum is clearly against the Democrats and, in November, Democrats will surely suffer disproportionate losses. 

Most incumbents will successfully navigate the four antis, as most incumbents win every cycle. But navigating these treacherous waters requires a clear map of the dangers lurking beneath the surface.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.