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The Second Coming of 1994, by the Numbers

National surveys dominated today’s political news, and they made unhappy reading for Democrats. Some of the most interesting findings didn’t get widely reported, however. Here they are, with my comments in italics:


Do you think Obama’s economic program is making the economy better, making it worse, or having no effect?

                        Better               Worse               No effect

9/2010              30                    33                    36

4/2010              39                    26                    32

If the Republicans took control of Congress, do you think their economic program would make the economy better, make it worse, or have no effect?

                        Better               Worse               No effect

                           32                   27                     37

The share of the electorate that thinks Obama’s program is making the economy better has fallen by one-quarter—9 percentage points—in the past five months. As a result, his better/worse rating on economic policy now is -3 (versus +13 in April) while the Republicans’ rating stands at +5.


Do you think if Republicans win control of Congress in November they will return to the economic policies of George W. Bush or do you think they will have different ideas for how to deal with the economy?

                        Policies of George W. Bush                   35

                        Different ideas                                        58

                        Not sure                                                   7

Do you think if Democrats maintain control of Congress is November they will continue with the economic policies of Barack Obama or do you think they will have different ideas for how to deal with the economy?

                        Policies of Barack Obama                     62

                        Different ideas                                        32

                        Not sure                                                  6

This is a double dose of bad news for Democrats. First, the entire premise of their fall campaign is that a vote for Republicans means returning to the bad old days of the Bush administration. Unfortunately for them, most Americans disagree. Unless voters can be persuaded that their assessment of today’s Republicans is mistaken, the Democrats’ attack seems fated to fall flat. Second: As we have seen, the electorate tends to believe that continuing Obama’s economic program would do more harm than good. Unfortunately, they also believe by a 2 to 1 margin that if they leave Congress in Democrats’ hands, Obama’s program is what they’ll get.


In the next election for U.S. Congress, do you feel that your representative deserves to be reelected, or so you think that it is time to give a new person a chance?

                                                8/2010              9/2006              9/1994

Deserves to be reelected            31                    41                       30

Give a new person a chance     56                   43                       53

Not sure                                     13                    16                       17

In general, do you think it is better for the same political party to control both the Congress and the presidency, so they can work together more closely, or do you think that it is better to have different political parties controlling the Congress and the presidency to prevent either one from going too far?

                                                 8/2010              10/2008            10/1994

Same party controls both          29                    41                       36

Different parties                         62                    48                       55

During the next twelve months, do you think the nation’s economy will get better, get worse, or stay about the same?

                                                8/2010              5/2010

Get better                                 26                    40

Get worse                                 26                    20

Stay about the same                45                    38


Would you say that your views on most political matters are liberal, moderate, or conservative?

                                    9/2010              1/2009            Change since Obama’s inauguration

Liberal                          19                    24                    -5

Moderate                      37                    42                    -5

Conservative                40                    32                   +8

In the four years after the 2004 elections, the public’s reaction against the excesses of the Bush administration allowed Democrats to regain and fortify their congressional majority and to recapture the White House. Since 2008, however, this dynamic has reversed itself. Today’s surveys add to the evidence suggesting that Democrats face a fall scenario ominously resembling 1994. In 1982, Ronald Reagan was able to limit his party’s losses by urging voters to “stay the course,” a strategy whose success depended on the belief that the only alternative to his brand of conservative economics was a return to the policies of the Carter administration. If voters now distinguish between the policies of today’s Republican Party and those of the Bush administration, Democrats will be hard put to replicate Reagan’s feat. 

Lacking a resonant national message, Democratic candidates have little choice but to focus on local issues and the shortcomings of their adversaries. If this is a “wave” election, though, this strategy may fall short, because waves typically carry even flawed opposition candidates across the finish line.