TOPICS > Politics

Voters Cast Ballots in Eight State Primaries

June 6, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Voters went to the polls in eight states today, casting ballots in primaries for senators, and governors, and members of the House. The backdrop for all this voting: these numbers.

In early 2005, 50 percent of Americans said they approved of President Bush; that figure is now down to 33 percent.

For members of Congress, the decline has been even more steep. In 2005, 43 percent thought lawmakers were doing a good job; that’s now dropped to 23 percent.

What does any of this bode for this fall’s mid-term elections? For analysis, we turn to Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press, and Amy Walter from the Cook Political Report.

Andy Kohut, yours are the latest numbers about the president’s disapproval ratings. What does this slide mean?

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Center for the People and the Press: It means that people are mad at Washington; they’re mad at the president; they’re mad at the Congress; they’re mad at the Republican Party, because they control both.

And the consequences are three things. We see a very high rate of people telling us they will be thinking about national issues when they go to vote in congressional elections, a record number of people saying that they will be voting against the president, 34 percent. We haven’t had anything that high since that question started being asked in 1982.

We have a very high percentage of people saying that they will be thinking — that they care which party controls Congress. So there’s nationalization.

There’s a surge of anti-incumbent sentiment. We now have 29 percent of people saying they don’t believe their congressperson deserves re-election. It hasn’t been that high since 1994. And the Republican Party is taking it on the chin as the party that controls Washington.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter, you’ve been following these House races, competitive and not-competitive, as they unfold. Is Andy right? Are congressional ratings sliding because of this national anger?

AMY WALTER, Senior Editor, The Cook Political Report: Well, absolutely. And I think the congressional polls are more of a lagging indicator. The leading indicator were some of these numbers that you put up on the screen, the president’s approval rating.

I think another important one is the right direction-wrong track question, where you have 70 percent of voters now saying they think the country is headed off in the wrong direction. So I agree with Andy that what voters are saying, in the big picture way, is we’re not happy with the status quo.

What we’re seeing in the individual House race polling right now is that it’s taking a toll on almost every single Republican candidate, that it is almost like a weight that’s just pushing them down. So if you are a Republican incumbent that is used to getting polling back that shows you in the mid-50s, maybe now you’re only in the mid-40s.

Is the downward slide natural?

GWEN IFILL: But isn't this something that often happens in the second term, the mid-term elections or the second term of a president, that this kind of slide begins?

ANDREW KOHUT: It doesn't always happen. In 1998, even though President Clinton was being impeached, his approval ratings were 56 percent. His party actually gained a few seats as he faced impeachment, because the public was with him. They weren't angry at the president and, therefore, his party didn't take it on the chin.

In every election in our history -- modern history -- when the president -- his approval ratings slip, his party loses seats. Now, this may be a different era. Maybe the structure of the electorate may be a little different, but, if we go by history and these low ratings for Bush and the Congress remain, the odds are very good that the Republicans are going to lose some seats.

GWEN IFILL: But Bill Clinton's first term was that 1994 mid-term election. Are there signs that it's beginning to look like that? That's when the Democrats lost control of both the House and the Senate.

AMY WALTER: Well, and when you look at the numbers that Andy pointed out on the national side, it tracks almost exactly with where the country was in 1994, when you saw the big shift from Democratic control to Republican control. Remember, that was 52 seats. In this case, we only need to see a change of 15 seats in the House to see Democrats take control.

Nationalizing the elections

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the nationalizing of elections, something you alluded to. One of the races we're watching today in California is the 50th congressional district of California, Duke Cunningham's seat.

He famously was retired, involuntarily, because of corruption charges, but everyone is waiting to see if a Democrat can take over this famously Republican seat and, theoretically, that would mean that corruption matters on a national stage; does it?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, it does. I mean, part of the discontent with Congress is the discontent over the scandals. And we have a very large percentage -- again, I keep saying the largest number we've ever seen -- I'm not B.S.'ing you; it really is the largest number -- saying this Congress has achieved less than most Congresses, and the scandals are an important part of that.

People expected from President Bush because he said that he would restore credibility to government in Washington. And for a good part of his first term -- or most of his first term -- they believed that. And they are more of the view that a change to the Democrats will reinvigorate the ethics in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: How will we tell, Amy, if that's really what's happening, that people are making these large conclusions, or whether they're just not voting because they don't want, I don't know, a dam built?

AMY WALTER: Well, here's what I think the big difference between 1994 and today, when we look at all the empirical evidence before us. The one number that doesn't add up from where we were in 1994 is that Democrats not seen as positively today as Republicans were seen in 1994.

Both sides that are coming in right now -- voters are saying of both parties, "We don't really particularly like either one." Democrats are only doing better in that they're less disliked than Republicans, but they're not better liked.

Now, I think what that suggests is that Democrats still have to make their case. They don't have to make the case for why people want change; voters are right now saying, "Yes, we're not happy with the status quo." But I think where they're sitting right now is they're saying, "But I don't know if I feel like Democrats are the party that's going to take me there."

Republicans feel under a cloud

GWEN IFILL: So what are we watching for tomorrow? Obviously, that 50th district race in California, but any of the other big races?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think that's the real race that folks are watching, only because it's the only one where we put a Democrat up against a Republican. These other races are sort of traditional primaries, where now we're going to finally have a candidate.

GWEN IFILL: For the record, Francine Busby against Brian Bilbray, the Republican.

AMY WALTER: ... Busby against Brian Bilbray. I think what I'm going to be looking for in the special election is the issue of intensity. And Andy sort of alluded to this earlier, but how motivated are Democrats and Republicans to come out and vote?

It's been clear from the very beginning that what Francine Busby has been able to do is coalesce her Democratic base. She has every single vote that went to John Kerry last time. She's kept all of those. Bilbray is the one who's had problems getting Republicans to get on board. Now, he has some of his own troubles. He's been attacked by the right by some Republicans, but that's not the whole problem.

GWEN IFILL: Andy, how do you measure that intensity?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, the Gallup poll measured it. They've been asking for a long time, "Will you be an enthusiastic voter come the fall?" And only 38 percent of the Republicans said yes, and 50 percent of the Democrats said yes. And that's the reversal of the usual pattern.

GWEN IFILL: And you attribute that to...

ANDREW KOHUT: The Republicans feel under a cloud. I mean, Bush's base is less happy with him; moderate Republicans have fallen away in great numbers. You know, they have a sense that things aren't going well in Iraq. They're paying $50 for a tank of gasoline. They've heard about the scandals.

And, you know, the same thing happened, by the way, in '94. Democratic turnout, which is almost always lower than Republican turnout, went very much lower. When a party is under pressure, when the climate of opinion runs against them, it's very hard to get the base out.

Incumbents have a big advantage

GWEN IFILL: Now, without making a partisan reference here, there is an elephant in the room, and that's the incredible advantage that incumbents have, just built-in advantage. They've got the money; they've got the fundraising. Even the Republicans who don't necessarily want to appear campaigning with President Bush, because of his unpopularity, are having to take money from President Bush.

AMY WALTER: Of course.

GWEN IFILL: So does that offset the negatives we see?

AMY WALTER: Well, and this is what we're going to really test in this election, which is just how strong is the seawall that incumbents have built around themselves? The other issue is redistricting has helped them, too, right, so they've created districts that help to protect them, along with all the other incumbent advantages.

This is where Republicans point to and say, "This is why things are going to be different than 1994." There were many open seats, Democratic open seats in 1994. Republicans don't have as many to defend; they don't have as many freshmen to defend.

These are tried, true, tough campaigners who've been through tough election before. They know what they're doing. They're going to be able to withstand this.

Of course, as we pointed out, no Republican who has been in Congress has ever seen numbers that looked like this, with their president in the White House.

ANDREW KOHUT: There's a lot of anger among independents in their views about their incumbents. This 29 percent that I referenced, "my member does not deserve re-election," that's driven by frustration among independents. And we haven't seen...

GWEN IFILL: And that's true for the president, as well, isn't it?

ANDREW KOHUT: That is indeed. It's independents who determine elections. We hear so much about base. It's independents who shape the election. And this anti-incumbent sentiment is at the level we saw in '94.

GWEN IFILL: So we've been talking about the bad news for the Republicans all along here. What about the Democrats? Are they in any position to take advantage of that?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, the bad news for the Democrats is they don't have a Newt Gingrich. They don't have anyone who represents a rallying symbol for their party.

The question is: Do they need it? I mean, in most elections when people are angry, they don't vote for the alternative. They vote against the incumbents.

Now, that generally works; it might not work. They would certainly be in a safer place if they had someone comparable to Gingrich who could really rally the troops, who could stand for something that was different and distinct. It doesn't exist on the national stage.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats?

AMY WALTER: I think those are all good points, and I agree that they might not need a national platform. That's the discussion and the debate we keep hearing in Washington among Democrats. "Don't we need to have a message? Don't we need have a national platform to run on?"

If I'm a candidate running for Congress as a Democrat, I don't necessarily think I'd want to come to Washington to go stand on the steps of the Capitol and say, "Rah-rah, here's our national plan. Here we are." They're running against Washington; they're not looking to come to Washington.

But I do think that, along with the message about change, there needs to be some sense of what they're going to do. I don't think they need a manifesto, a 300-page document they're going to hand out to every voter, but just a sense for what it would mean to have Democrats in charge. It would mean this.

I think what we saw in the Francine Busby-Brian Bilbray race, an ad we saw in that race that we're going to see literally Xeroxed all over the country by the Democrats, is this simple message, where she starts off the ad by saying, "Had enough?" And just sort of runs through the litany, "Vote for me." And that's what Democrats are going to have to hope that voters are going to do.

GWEN IFILL: OK, well, we will be watching the results, especially in that California race. Amy Walter, Andrew Kohut, thank you both very much.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.