Polls Find Voters Are Restless with Incumbents

Recent polls depict American voters having anti-incumbent sentiments similar to the levels of 1994, when the House shifted from the incumbent Democratic majority, to a newly elected Republican majority. Michele Norris talks with Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

As we mentioned, Congress is getting ready to leave Washington for the midterm election break. To find out what incumbents will face out on the campaign trail we turn to Andrew Kohut. He's director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Welcome, Andy.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (Director, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press): Happy to be here.

NORRIS: So what kind of mood are all those incumbents going to encounter when they go back to their home districts?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, what they're going to face is a sour mood where the public thinks the Congress hasn't achieved a lot, gets very low approval ratings, 27 percent. Almost as low, or as low as the Congress got back in '94, when there was a strong negative anti-incumbent mood.

And people are dissatisfied with the course of the country. Only a third say, 30 percent say the country's doing well, that we're on the right track and all of that. So this is not a happy electorate they face.

NORRIS: And the electorate, equally dissatisfied with both parties or does one party have more of a disadvantage than another?

Mr. KOHUT: Clearly, Republicans are more disadvantaged. They hold the levers of power and they're being responsible for things not going well. And the levels of anti-incumbency are very high. We have 27 percent saying that they're likely to vote against their incumbent. We haven't seen a number that high since 1994.

Typically, it's only about 20 percent who say my incumbent, I'm not so happy with him or her. But this time, like 1994, people are angry with the way things are going and therefore less likely to do what most people do, is vote again for that person in Congress.

NORRIS: Now control of Congress, particularly control of the Senate, comes down to a few key races, just a handful of races. And in most of those races it's Republican incumbents that are really on the hot seat.

Mr. KOHUT: If we look at what the handicappers say are the contested races, there are 34 of them, and 26 are held - 34 incumbent seats. Twenty-six are held by Republicans, and only eight are held by Democrats. If we went back to '94 and looked at the contested seats, they were over - incumbent contested seats -they were overwhelmingly Democratic, not Republican. Again, it's people being angry at the Congress and therefore taking it out on the party in power, and the party in power are the Republicans now, as it was the Democrats back then.

NORRIS: And how much of this anti-incumbent mood that you're describing is actually a bi-product of dissatisfaction with the administration and its handling with the war? Are those two things tied?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, they're all interrelated. Certainly, we've never had a modern election where the president's approval ratings have fallen so dramatically and his party hasn't taken it on the chin, and it looks like - we're not there yet - but the horse race right now looks like his party will take it on the chin. The Republicans seemed destined to lose seats. The question is how many.

NORRIS: Now I want to return to the business on the Hill this past week. Really, the issue - the questions about the interrogation and the prosecution of terror suspects has dominated the congressional agenda for several weeks now. Are these issues at play on the campaign trail, or does that sort of - we flipped the switch now that they go out on the trail?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, I think they affect how people think about things are going in Washington, and I think President Bush is well-served that this debate is over. He was not seen as in a good position at loggerheads with senior Republican senators, and that probably hurt his standing among moderate Republicans, and we see some of that.

NORRIS: But what about members of Congress, because you heard in David Welna's piece that, you know, a bit of politicking even in the last moments of this debate.

Mr. KOHUT: Well, we haven't seen much impact on the race. The debate on the detainees hasn't seemed to have had much impact on the way the parties are seen. Certainly, terrorism has a greater visibility than it had a few months ago. We had the foiled attacks in August; we had the September 11th anniversary. But we haven't seen a groundswell of change in opinion about the way the parties handle these issues. The Republicans, it's still their best issue to promote in Congress (unintelligible) people, but it's not as strong as it once was. It's not as strong as it was four years ago, by no means.

NORRIS: All this focus, though, on security and habeas corpus and other issues, does that take Congress away from other issues that voters perhaps care about, those real bread-and-butter issues. I mean are they - can they go home and tout legislation that they've passed that will make a difference in the lives of the voters that they're going to be trying to court?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, the public thinks detainees are important, but the top issues are the economy, healthcare, Iraq and terrorism. But as much focus as we've seen here doesn't square out with what we - when we say what are you going to be voting on? It's this mix of these top issues on the agenda, plus Iraq and terrorism.

NORRIS: Thank you, Andy.

Mr. KOHUT: You're welcome.

NORRIS: Andrew Kohut, he's with the Pew Center for the People and the Press.

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