Despite Bush Poll Gains, Voters Want Democratic Gains In Congress Next Year
With every poll that comes out showing that there is still a bedrock of 35-38% support for Bush no matter what he is actually doing, it is clear that there is a sizeable part of the electorate that wants to believe the best about Bush personally, and will not be shaken from that hope until tangible evidence is staring them in the face, such as his response to Katrina, and whether or not members of his inner circle worked to destroy Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame. Yet with 2006 now looming, Bush's personal numbers may not matter much anymore. The more relevant question turns on whether or not voters want the era of a rubber stamp Congress to end.
Presidential elections turn on the voters’ assessments of the candidates themselves. Comparisons between the two candidates trump concerns about policies. Voters’ willingness to think the best about Bush personally as compared to what they saw correctly or not in Kerry, is the reason why Bush had the success he did, even though his job approval ratings for an incumbent were poor. Although voters knew that his policies didn’t match with their own priorities, they hoped he would change somewhat in a second term and work more with Democrats. And given that we were only 38 months after 9/11, voters weren’t in a mindset that supported changing leaders. This, and the fact that we were being fed a narrative by a complicit media managed by a brutally effective White House spin operation, meant that Kerry did a fine job coming within 135,000 stolen votes in Ohio of being president.
But will the bedrock of 35-38% support for Bush, no matter what he does, guarantee that the Republicans will not suffer losses next year? By the time of the 2006 election, voters will have had six years of Bush’s policies and performance, and will have had the opportunity to reevaluate their support for him over Kerry just two years earlier. The GOP will try and nationalize this election next year as a referendum on Bush, and his policies. They will replay the 2004 playbook, by trying to demonize every Democrat as being soft on terrorism, wrong on Iraq, big spenders and taxers, and will throw in a couple of wedge issues like immigration to get the folks once again from the pews to the polls. They will make the case over and over again that is vital to elect folks to Congress that fully support Bush and his policies. But how successful will this strategy be if the number of likely voters next year who strongly support Bush is dwarfed by the number of likely voters who strongly dislike him?
A recent poll released late last week reflects that despite the spin from the NRCC and NRSC, the Democrats do in fact have an opportunity to gain significant seats next year regardless of the constant carping that reapportionment has put fewer seats in play. Even if voters still want to believe the best about Bush by November 2006, and that is a big “if” given what is still coming from the Plame inquiry, the Abramoff scandal, and what may develop on the NSA spying story, it would be natural for the country to turn towards the Democrats next year after six years of total GOP rule. The poll results bear this out, in showing that despite recent improvements for Bush himself, it hasn’t translated into a renewal of support for the GOP in Congress. In fact, Democrats are gaining support for next year while Bush personally improves his position.
"Those gains are real but have not budged the structure underlying the 2006 election. They have not translated into improvements for the Republicans, particularly in the race for Congress. They have not altered judgments about whether the Iraq war was worth it or a mistake, and they have not given the Republicans standing on the economy or national priorities. Frankly, a good 60 percent of American voters at the close of 2005, according to the NPR poll, believe the country is headed in the wrong direction."
"Swing voters are turning to the Democrats in very large numbers... Independents vote Democratic by 17 points – double the margin for the electorate as a whole. It is hard to imagine how one overcomes that big a swing to the Democrats, particularly if Democrats are also doing better in the world of base politics."
This poll also finds that 11 percent of those who voted for Bush in 2004 now plan to vote Democratic next year. After hearing weeks of renewed debate about Iraq and how we got into that mess, the poll finds that Independents side with the Democrats by a 23-point margin.
By the end of 2006, we will be one year further along in Iraq towards a significant American withdrawal, and GOP calls for “staying the course” will resonate less and less than they do now. Likewise, will the economy still look as good to many people a year from now as it does to some people now? Add to that the uncertainty of what may still be coming from Plame, from Abramoff, and from problems not yet fully developed, and it is hard to see where Bush builds an effective argument for keeping the GOP in total control of the government, short of him letting his guard down again and allowing Al Qaeda to attack us once again.
Voters will want to see the Democrats as an effective counterbalance to Bush in his last two years. Although the base will want to see Democrats talk a lot more about impeachment, the swing voters next year will come back to the party through a focus on the issues and unmet needs here at home; the need to turn the page on Iraq and move forward so that a mistake like that cannot be made again; the need for reform and to eliminate corruption in the wake of the Abramoff revelations; and why change can best be accomplished by electing Democrats next year so that the era of a “rubber stamp” Congress can finally end.