What's The Electoral Impact Of The Debt Debate?

All those involved in the debt ceiling debate seemed to accuse their adversaries of being overly concerned about 2012 and public approval ratings. To the extent that politicians were keeping an eye on the polls, we spend some time examining what they saw in those numbers. Michele Norris speaks to Nate Silver of the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog about the electoral impact of the debt ceiling debate.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: All those involved in the debt ceiling debate seem to accuse their adversaries of being overly concerned about 2012 and public approval ratings. To the extent that politicians were keeping an eye on the polls, we're going to spend some time examining what they saw in those numbers. And to do that, we're joined by Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times. Welcome back.

NATE SILVER: Yeah, thank you.

NORRIS: Now, you spent some time looking at the electoral impact of this bruising and prolonged debate. Let's look at the Republicans first. The Republicans held the line at least for now on taxes, and they've kept revenues out of this equation. But there's something interesting. Public opinion suggested that GOP voters were more open to targeted tax hikes than GOP politicians. Are those votes applauding the Republicans now?

SILVER: Well, they're kind of getting it from both sides a little bit where moderate Republican voters feel that taxes, you know, should be raised on people making more than $250,000 a year, or on corporations and so forth, right? In fact, in a CNN poll which was, I think, released yesterday, 51 percent of Republican voters favored targeted tax increases.

But, you know, the Republican establishment feels that tax increases, once you give one then you've kind of lost the whole argument, I suppose. So they towed that line and they towed it effectively.

NORRIS: But at least in terms of public approval ratings right now, did the Republicans emerge from this bruising battle somewhat victorious in terms of an approval rating or electoral impact looking ahead to the next round of elections?

SILVER: No. I don't think so at all. I mean, I think they got a win on the policy, you know, and that's what you get elected to do, you know, in theory. But public opinion has not reflected well on them, where right now the approval rating of the Congress is 14 percent - one four, not a typo. Now, it always tends to be low, but that was from a CNN poll conducted last night. It's the lowest number they've ever recorded, and they've taken this number going back to 1974.

NORRIS: Fourteen percent. That is a very low number. But are voters saying, you know, I may not like Congress, but I like that guy or that gal that represents me?

SILVER: Well, you know, you're not going to have 86 percent of Congress voted out of office. But historically there has been a clear correlation between what that number is, right, the number disapproving of Congress and how many incumbents lose their seats. We're seeing, you know, record low numbers for the Congress. We're seeing record low numbers for both major parties. Both Democrats and Republicans have very poor images right now.

NORRIS: Well, let's dig into this a little bit deeper. Does some of this umbrage spill over to the White House? President Obama's approval ratings had been trending down before the debate moved into Defcon Five status. What happened to his numbers as the debate intensified?

SILVER: It's a little hard to say, because there have also been a lot of bad economic numbers. So, you know, Obama's numbers have tracked down a little bit. They've certainly tracked down since the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, which was probably to be expected.

NORRIS: So his numbers spiked at that point and then...

SILVER: His numbers spiked at that point, although we should say, you know, we talk about these shifts in Obama's approval rating, and they're all within kind of a fairly narrow range. It seems like there are enough partisans in the country now where even when he's doing his best he can't get much above 52 percent, or can't get much below, say, 43 percent. Things kind of bounce around in the mid to high 40s depending on a particular event.

I think the question is for the Congress, is this a temporary shift or is it gonna be something which affects them through the next election? Remember, the Congress doesn't get as many opportunities to make an impression with the public. If there's a major foreign policy event, the President gets on TV, the Congress doesn't. So, to leave the public with a bad impression, certainly - although Obama was not popular as well, there might be more of a hangover I would think for the Congress when this is something that voters will process more in 2012 because they have fewer things to weigh against it on the scale potentially.

NORRIS: It has been reported that the Obama campaign is particularly concerned about Independents. Are they concerned for good reason?

SILVER: Sure. I mean, Independents are often kind of the canary in the coal mine, and his numbers with Independents have been getting worse, where I think you see up to 55 or 60 percent disapproval from Independents. And Obama certainly, because of the economy and because of, you know, his mediocre poll standing, is a extremely vulnerable incumbent president right now.

NORRIS: Nate Silver, good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

SILVER: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times.

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