NPR logo Poll Finds Anti-Incumbent Sentiment

Poll Finds Anti-Incumbent Sentiment

What do Democrats, Republicans, Independents and NPR's Brian Naylor all share in common? They're watching the primaries today in Connecticut, to see if disgruntled Democrats toss out the man who almost became the nation's vice president: Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Voters either seem to love him and praise him for having the courage to side with Republicans when he thinks they're right, or voters detest him for allegedly being a hypocrite and a whiner.

Meanwhile, a new poll is sure to make Republicans across the whole country more nervous. An ABC News/Washington Post survey released yesterday evening suggests that more voters are fed up their current members of Congress than at any time since 1994. And remember what happened back then? Democrats out in the House, Republicans back in? This new poll reinforces the even scarier findings (scary if you're a Republican) of NPR's own survey a couple weeks ago. It found that key districts which went Republican last time around have flip-flopped and are now leaning Democratic. "What is surprising," says Ron Elving, our Washington editor, "is that the 2006 Democratic candidates were favored by an aggregate of six percentage points." Ron says that's an 18-point swing — in other words, a big deal.

Ron Elving adds:

The ABC News/Washington Post poll confirms what we've been seeing for several months now: a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the performance of the federal government, especially with elected officials in Washington and especially with Congress. The percentage saying they will vote Democratic is just over 50%, while the percentage saying they will vote Republican is at 29%. This continues the trend that has been running throughout 2006. What's most interesting here is the close match-up with the anti-incumbent sentiments found by the same poll in the summer of 1994, just three months before Republicans won their sweeping victories and took over control of the Senate and House (the latter for the first time in 40 years). Those calling themselves anti-incumbent this summer are 53% of the respondents (just 29% say they are pro-incumbent). At the same point in 1994, the numbers were 54% and 29%. In polling terms, this is an identical response.
While people clearly disapprove of Congress, it should be noted that they still tend to approve of their own congressman. When asked about their own representative, 55% said they approved. This is on the low side, historically speaking, but it's still "above water." In 1994, the comparable percentage fell to 49% in the fall.
Here's another caveat. This is a poll that was conducted nationwide. Residents of the 50 states and the 435 House districts all had an equal chance of being polled. This is an interesting and valuable base for polling. But congressional elections are not conducted nationwide. They are conducted within boundaries of districts, boundaries that are typically drawn to favor one party. Therefore, the great majority of House districts will have no meaningful contest this year at all. For all practical purposes, the incumbent, or the incumbent's party, has already been re-elected in roughly 85% of the 435 districts.
A more meaningful measure of vulnerability for incumbents can be found in the NPR poll released on July 27 (first heard on Morning Edition, now available at This poll, conducted by Republican Glen Bolger and Democrat Stan Greenberg, focused only on the 50 House districts that are considered most competitive for the two parties (a consensus list compiled from multiple non-partisan sources). Most of these districts (40) are now held by Republicans, so it's not surprising that the aggregate vote total for all 50 favored the Republican candidate for Congress in 2004 by 12 percentage points. What is surprising is that in the Bolger-Greenberg poll, the 2006 Democratic candidates were favored by an aggregate of 6 percentage points. That's an 18-point swing, strongly suggesting that something's happening. The bulge held up even when specific incumbent's names were used.
President Bush continues to run well below 50% approval, currently about 10 percentage points under in this and most other polls. This represents an improvement from earlier in the year, when he was closer to 30% in most polls. The improvement since then comes from firming up his approval numbers within his core of support: conservatives and Republicans. Some of these respondents had expressed disapproval with the president earlier this year, but came home after he vetoed the stem research bill and stood by Israel in its current conflict with Hezbollah.