Congressional Elections: A Political Turning Point?

Social Education, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Congressional Elections: A Political Turning Point?


Social Education Staff

The Democrats have their best chance in 10 years to make major gains in the congressional elections on November 7, while Republicans are striving to retain control of both the House and the Senate. For Republicans to lose control of both houses of the legislature, the Democrats need net gains of 15 House seats and 6 Senate seats.

The elections are taking place against a backdrop of diminishing confidence in the performance of Congress. Corruption scandals, pork barrel politics, perceptions that politicians are too beholden to lobbies and political donors, and a widespread public belief that the country is heading in the wrong direction, combined to give Congress unusually high disapproval ratings in polls taken this summer. Between 58% and 69% of the public expressed disapproval of congressional performance in the different polls--not quite as high as the 72% disapproval on the last occasion control of the House and Senate changed hands in 1994, but a big change from the last mid-term elections in 2002 when more members of the public approved the performance of Congress than disapproved.

Recent opinion polls have also recorded a general view among voters that it would be better for Congress to be in Democratic rather than Republican hands.

Will voters who disapprove of Congress's performance overall still turn out to vote for their own current member of Congress? Voters typically approve of the performance of their own member of Congress, whether Republican or Democrat, more than they approve of the general performance of other members of Congress. Even this approval rating, however, stands at a lower than average level; in August, about 55% of Americans approved the performance of their own members, only modestly higher than the 51% just before the dramatic 1994 changeover, and clearly below the 64% approval rating at the time of the 2002 mid-term elections.

Although local and state issues usually play a major role in House and Senate races, the elections are taking place at a time when national issues are on everybody's mind. During the summer, the approval rating of President Bush ranged between 33% and 42% in the different opinion polls. One of the issues identified by Americans as especially important was the war in Iraq, closely identified with Bush, which the majority of Americans believe was a mistake to start.

In general, when a president's approval rating is below 50%, that spells potential trouble for his party in congressional elections.

The fact that the U.S. economy has grown at a good pace would normally be positive for an incumbent party. Despite economic growth, however, most Americans do not seem to believe that the economy is heading in the right direction. There is a sense among both middle-income and lower-income families that they have not benefited from economic growth in the same way as upper-income families. Moreover, the increase in the price of gasoline resulting from the sharp rise of the price of oil in the last two years has affected the pocketbooks of many Americans. In September 2003, the price of crude oil was about $25, while at the beginning of September 2006, the average price was more than $60. In past congressional elections that have followed a sustained oil price rise, the party of the president has twice had major losses: in 1980, when the president was also beset, like today, with bad news from the Middle East (then in the form of the Iranian hostage crisis), the Democrats lost 12 Senate seats and 35 House seats; and in 1974 (in an election held in the shadow of the Watergate scandal), the Republicans lost 5 Senate seats and 48 House seats. One exception to this pattern was the 2000 elections, also held during a year when the price of oil increased rapidly, when President Clinton's Democratic Party gained Senate and House seats at the same time as it lost the presidency. However, the steep rise in oil prices in this case was a rebound from an unusually low price, rather than the rise from already high prices seen now and in 1980. …

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