Will Debt Dance Be a Disaster for Incumbents?

by Stuart Rothenberg August 3, 2011 · 11:04 AM EDT

Congress, we hear from voters of all stripes on television and in print, is a disaster, unable even to address important questions let alone find good answers. Even with the deal to raise the debt limit and avoid a default, voters surely will punish all incumbents next November, won’t they?

Don’t bet on it. In fact, be skeptical that they will simply turn on lawmakers because of their incumbency.

Whatever frustration voters feel now could easily change during the next 15 months as a series of other events color their impressions and a changed context leads them to re-evaluate their current feelings and beliefs.

The appropriations process is still to play out this year and again next year, and questions about the state of the economy — and particularly unemployment — during the summer and early fall of 2012 won’t be answered for months.

Then there is something called foreign policy. While we’ve been focused on the debt ceiling, Egypt’s Islamists have been flexing their muscle, Turkey’s top generals have stepped down, Syrian security forces have killed dozens of opponents of the regime and the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating, according to a government report. These kinds of issues could again be front and center before the 2012 elections.

Ultimately, what matters to voters is “results,” not the process that was covered minute by minute for the past few weeks. And by results, I don’t mean the deal negotiated by Congressional leaders over the weekend. I mean the shape of the economy.

During the next year and a half, Republicans and Democrats will point fingers at each other if unemployment remains high and voters are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, and I’m certain each side will find ways to blame the other’s debt ceiling and deficit reduction strategies for the problem.

You’ll see Republican TV ads about how Democrats don’t really want to get spending under control and will raise your taxes, just as you surely will see Democratic ads about how Republicans protect millionaires and the Big Oil companies while cutting programs that protect children, seniors, the middle class and the truly needy.

But that’s standard fare in campaigns, and it isn’t clear that those messages will have any unusual effect because of the chaos surrounding weeks of debt ceiling negotiations.

It’s almost always easy to find data proving that voters hate Congress, politicians, partisanship and Washington, D.C., and there is plenty of evidence that is the case now. Anecdotes are even easier to come by.

ABC’s “World News With Diane Sawyer,” for example, has run a “Tell Washington” segment for weeks that reports on Americans’ “anger.” Americans are “furious at the continued squabbling among politicians,” Sawyer said, introducing the July 19 segment, which included man-on-the-street comments from outraged Americans and polling data showing the public’s dissatisfaction with Congress.

But attitudes held now don’t necessarily predict attitudes, much less behavior, more than a year from now. You don’t have to have been selected for a MacArthur Foundation grant to understand that.

Consider the July 27-28 Democracy Corps survey with the headline “Independent Voters Flee Boehner, Congressional GOP.” It’s not bad enough that the fine print at the bottom of the memo notes that the poll was “an experimental web survey,” but it was conducted in the middle of the debt ceiling debate, when things were at their most chaotic and the end result was far from clear.

Given that, the results of the survey have an extremely short shelf life and almost certainly were presented to shape the media’s narrative of the debate rather than to shed light on the public’s conflicted attitudes about taxes, spending, the deficit and avoiding a default.

Responses to questions asking respondents to compare President Barack Obama with “John Boehner and the Congressional Republicans” almost certainly reflected Congress’ much lower job approval ratings than the president’s, as the Democracy Corps’ pollsters surely know.

It’s not that current attitudes are irrelevant. They aren’t. It’s certainly possible that current impressions could harden, making voters receptive to some messages (and messengers) but not to others.

While the public has displayed a general frustration with Congress, it’s probably a mistake to assume its feelings will be “anti-incumbent” next November. Instead, it is much easier to imagine Democratic voters blaming Republicans and Republican voters blaming Democrats, with independents much more conflicted than they have been during the past three elections.

Even if independents are critical of Congressional Republicans a year from now, they might also be critical of Obama’s performance, making them sympathetic to the almost certain Republican argument that the 2012 elections are a referendum on the president.

When “average Americans” say they are angry with politicians and Congress and just want them to “do what’s right,” it’s a mistake to assume those Americans all agree on what outcome constitutes “doing what’s right.”

Our elections are by their very nature partisan events, with voters having two parties and two approaches to choose from. Unless and until that changes, we are not likely to have an election where incumbents will lose solely because they are incumbent officeholders.