I've been writing a lot about the ways in which voting behavior is driven more by fundamentals like the economy or the fact of a midterm election than by ideological evaluations of the candidates. Today's Washington Post poll offers a good window into the dynamic. The Post's results are typical: they show an electorate whose views, taken as a whole, make no sense whatsoever except as a mechanical response to economic conditions.
The poll shows that, among registered voters, 47% plan to vote for a Republican in the House elections, and 46% for a Democrat. (Among voters most likely to vote, the GOP leads 49-45.) At the same time, the poll also shows that the public clearly favors the Democrats over the Republicans. The Post story about the poll leads with the fact that only 43% of the public has confidence in President Obama to make the right decisions for the country's future. That's low. But only 26% have confidence in Republicans in Congress to make the right decisions, which is far lower than Obama, and even lower than Congressional Democrats, in whom 32% have confidence. That's not an anomaly. Asked which party will do a better job of handling the economy, 42% say the Democrats and 34% say the GOP.
So, in sum, there's a crucial swing vote bloc that prefers the policies of the Democrats over the Republicans but plans to vote for the Republicans anyway.
Why would anybody do that? Delving into the psychology of voters is tricky. But clearly, it vindicates the sense that voters hold the governing party responsible for the state of the country, which mainly means the state of the economy. Voters in the middle are not going to compare the policies of the two parties. They're just going to vote yay or nay on how things appear to be going. That makes more sense when you consider things from the perspective of voters who don't follow politics very closely.
As it happens, the Post has a feature today about unemployed workers who are about to lose their unemployment checks. It focuses on a New Jersey man named Dwight Michael Frazee. The story does not devote much time to Frazee's political beliefs, but it does describe them like so
While searching for work, he lived on $585 a week in unemployment payments. But the checks were cut off in May when he reached 99 weeks. Now Frazee, who is married and has a 5-year-old daughter, is in a financial free fall with no safety net.
"My life has been total stress. I sleep maybe four hours a night, worrying about money," he said. "I understood the president and Congress had to stabilize the banks, get Wall Street going. I figured something would be done for middle-class Americans, that they couldn't abandon us. But I was wrong."
Frazee does not seem to realize that Obama and almost all the Democrats favor an extension of unemployment benefits, and Republicans oppose it. He just knows that Obama is in charge and Obama is not giving him what he wants. Of course, the dynamic works the other way, too. Under George W. Bush, most workers saw virtually no income growth, and this made them extremely predisposed to vote for Democrats.