Bookmark and ShareShare
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Implications of the 2010 House Vote

Here’s an Election 2010 update, with a particular look at what the results mean going forward.

Gallup’s polling and modeling predicted a wave election for the Republicans in the House, projecting 60 or more seats gained by the GOP. This is what occurred. A wave election is one in which national issues and trends become strong enough that they affect local House races. The most recent wave election for the Republicans involved a gain of 54 House seats in 1994. After that election the Republicans held 230 seats. The previous wave election for Republicans prior to that was 1946, when the GOP gained 56 seats, for a total of 246 seats. This year, the Republicans look like they will have gained at least 65 seats (plus or minus a few as final results come in), making it the largest GOP wave election since the time of World War II. The results give the Republicans an estimated 243 seats, the highest GOP total in the House since 1946.

Several key points about this election and in particular what it portends about the future:

1. There were a number of structural factors that had an impact on this election. The first is that in any midterm election the party of the president can be expected to lose House seats, barring unusual circumstances such as occurred in 2002 (a little more than a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and in which the GOP gained rather than losing seats). The second is the fact that Democrats this year held a number of shakier seats, in part resulting from strong Democratic years in 2006 and 2008. Everything else being equal, when one party wins a lot of seats, there is a tendency for them to lose some of them back in the next election. (We can thus predict that Republicans will be more vulnerable to losing seats in 2012). Third is the fact that Congress as a body has low job approval ratings, which predicts that the party controlling Congress will lose seats. Fourth is the fact that Americans are by and large dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today, which too predicts that the party in charge will lose seats. Fifth is the negative perception of the economy by voters.

2. The economy was clearly the top issue this year in the campaign, based on all available evidence. The economy remains the top issue when we ask Americans to name the most important problem facing the country. “Economic concerns” was the top issue voters told us they took into account in making their choice, and that held across all partisan groups. Our Gallup economic confidence data show a continuing low level of faith either in the current economy or the future of the economy. When Americans perceive there is a bad economy, the party in charge -- that is, the party in control of the White House and/or Congress -- generally tends to get the blame.

3. A very important issue in this election encompassed differences of opinion over the appropriate role of the federal government in American society. This is a real key to understanding what is going on in American politics today. Much Gallup research, a lot of it included in our October federal government summit in Washington, shows that Republicans and Democrats have widely differing views on what it is government should be doing, and how government should be doing it. Republicans tend to argue for less government, while Democrats tend to be positive about the use of government to focus on solving society’s problems. These sentiments were at the heart of the Tea Party movement and were strong motivating factors in Republicans’ disproportionately high voting turnout.

4. Republicans had a higher level of enthusiasm about voting this year than did Democrats. This was caused in large part by the items I’ve listed above.

5. President Obama inserted himself into this election with heavy campaigning on behalf of Democratic candidates. It is unclear just how much of a factor this was. Our latest data showed that voters were no more likely to say they were voting to send a message of opposition to Obama than they were in terms of sending a message of opposition to George W. Bush in 2006. Obama’s job approval rating is below the 50% mark -- which predicts that a president’s party is not going to do well in the elections, but has remained fairly consistent in and around the 45% mark.  By point of reference, George Bush’s job approval rating was 38% just before the 2006 midterm elections in which the Republicans lost seats, Bill Clinton’s was 46% in 1994 just before the Democrats lost seats, and Harry Truman’s was 33% in 1946 just before the Democrats lost seats.

6. The big challenge going forward is how the new Congress will govern and what it will do. There will be a Democratic White House, a Democratic Senate, and a Republican House. There are obvious strong differences of opinion between Republicans and Democrats, primarily focused on what the role of government should be. That issue, again, is going to be a key centerpiece of governing going forward. The executive and legislative branches will need to come to grips with balancing the two polar opposite views of government in society today if anything is going to get done. Additionally, Congress will need to work on its overall negative image, which is in historically bad shape.

7. The results of this election tell us little about the probable outcome of the next presidential election, forthcoming in 2012. History shows that the two years between elections constitute an eternity. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan’s parties lost seats in 1994 and 1982, yet both easily won re-election two years later. At the same time, George H.W. Bush’s party lost seats in 1990 and he went on to lose in 1992. The status of the economy over the next two years will be a significant factor in determining Obama’s re-election probabilities.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Memo From the People to Congress

Regardless of who controls Congress after the dust from this election settles, it is an appropriate time to hear from the American people - the bedrock of our political system -- about what it is they want their elected representatives in Washington to do.

There will be much discussion of specific legislation, including such things as repealing the healthcare reform plan, immigration legislation, economic legislation, and energy legislation. That’s fine and good. But our research shows there are three broader concerns on the minds of Americans that Congress needs to contemplate even before it gets to these types of specifics.

These can be categorized as choices between polar opposites on three dimensions: the role of the federal government, the relationship between government and business, and the way Congress works.


There is no exact right or wrong place where Americans end up on these dimensions, but rather the American public's apparent desire for a balance between the two extremes on each. The salience of these issues suggests that Americans at minimum want their elected representatives to acknowledge that they are each being taken into account -- that the types of balances I am talking about below are being considered.

The balance between the federal government doing a little and doing a lot.

The image and brand of the federal government is in bad shape. Over 7 out of 10 Americans volunteer a negative response when they are asked to describe the “federal government.” About half of Americans believe the federal government represents an immediate threat to the rights of ordinary citizens in this country. Americans tend to believe that the federal government has too much power, and that it is doing things that should be left to business and industry.

Those in charge of the federal government -- that would be the executive and legislative branches -- have to realize that the public is not very positive about what it is these leaders do for a living. Many Americans agree that the federal government performs necessary functions.  But many also view government as a very large, inefficient, bureaucratic enterprise that in many instances does as much harm as good.

Again, it’s certainly not that the American people believe their national government should do nothing. Only about one in five say government should do only those things necessary to provide the most basic government functions. At the same time, only about one in five say the government should take active steps in every area it can to try and improve the lives of its citizens. That leaves the majority of Americans somewhere in the middle on this scale.

Taken as a whole, however, enough Americans in our surveys express worry about the government that its proper role deserves to be thought of as a major, overarching issue in American society. I'm not talking here about specifics, but about the general philosophy of what government should do and should not do. Using the government to address social problems by developing new programs is something that significant segments of the public view with trepidation.

Keep in mind, as I noted, that almost half of Americans say the federal government represents an immediate threat to the rights of ordinary citizens. When we probed the attitudes of Americans who feel this way, we found that these people tend to view the government as an enemy that invades citizens' privacy, violates constitutional rights, and in general interferes with citizens' daily lives.

Debating the appropriate role of government is not new, of course. Our Founding Fathers wrestled with it. The issue touches on key issues of the meaning of life and what government should be doing to eradicate inequalities and deficiencies on the one hand, versus letting citizens have the freedom to fend for themselves on the other. There is no one or easy answer from the American people on these questions, either in general or in terms of specific situations. But there is every indication that they represent keenly important issues.

The people of this country, it seems to me, would like their representatives to think very carefully about the big picture role of government. When elected representatives use the federal government as an instrument to solve societal problems, they must do it with care, explicitly acknowledging the fact that the federal government in the eyes of many Americans represents the “least worst” solution to society’s problems. This basically involves an explicit acknowledgement of Americans' concerns about the size and scope of the government, and the explicit acknowledgment that elected representatives are aware of these concerns and are taking them into account in their decision making.

The balance between an antagonistic relationship between government and business and a partnership view of the relationship between government and business.

Americans are not in love with business, particularly big business. In fact, confidence in "big business" is very low at 19%. A majority of Americans favor the "Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act" -- at least as we describe it to them in our poll. At the same time, less than half (45%) agree that "business will harm society if it is not regulated by government." And less even than that (36%) agree that the way the "government does things is fairer and more just to everyone involved than the way businesses do things." Americans also strongly agree (73%) that "in general, businesses can do things more efficiently than the government." Americans also remain more likely to say that big government is the larger threat to the nation, rather than big business. And although confidence in big business is low, confidence in the Congress is even lower at 11%.

Over 8 out of 10 workers are employed by private industry, rather than for a local, state, or federal government. Obviously, the vast majority of Americans depend on business for their livelihood.

The public, as I have been emphasizing, appears to have concerns about business but at the same time to recognize that business is a legitimate cornerstone of the American system.  Americans, it appears, recognize that there is a delicate mating dance of sorts between the government and business -- with no easy answer as to exactly what the nature of that relationship should be. Elected representatives in Congress must recognize this, and let the public know they are considering the best or most appropriate rapprochement between government and business that allows both to move forward effectively.

The balance between Congress making decisions totally on its own, and a Congress that listens intently to the views of the people as the basis for its decisions.

Congress' job approval ratings have been worse, but that’s not saying a lot. Just about 20% of Americans at this point in history approve of the job Congress is doing. A majority of Americans say they do not trust the legislative branch. The perceived honesty and ethics of members of Congress and senators is near the bottom of the list -- below lawyers, albeit slightly ahead of car salesmen near the bottom of the list of professions. Congressional bickering is perceived at an all-time high. Voters say that sending anyone to Congress who has never been there is preferable to keeping experienced members there.

This and other evidence continues to suggest that the people of the country have lost faith in the men and women they elect to represent them. Congress is now operating in an unfriendly environment in which many of the people back home are suspicious and doubting of what it does (and how it does it).

The first order of business for the new Congress is figuring out how to deal with this frightening situation. The men and women in Congress and the Senate are of course representatives of average men and women back home. If these citizens are not convinced that their representatives are doing just that -- representing them, then that's a big problem.

The issue is not just that Americans have views on the specific legislation they want Congress to pass. The issue is also that Americans want Congress to improve the process by which any legislation is passed.

That, of course, is easier said than done. Calls for bipartisan cooperation, for example, are not new and generally have not resulted in huge changes.

I mentioned one core issue involved in this situation, the relationship between elected representatives and the people they represent. The American people apparently feel left out of the process. Our data show that Americans have more faith in themselves to make decisions on policy issues than they do in their elected representatives.  Congress needs to recognize these facts of life. 

There is clearly a balance between Congress making decisions totally on its own, and Congress exercising no judgment of its own. It appears that Americans believe the pendulum in this situation has swung too far toward the first of these extremes, and would like Congress to bring it back into the middle.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What's Driving This Election?

This is a good time to review some of the underlying factors pushing this year's congressional election so substantially toward the Republican side of the political ledger.

A good starting point is the historical finding that the party of the president tends to lose seats in a midterm election. This does not always occur. But it happens often enough in history to make it the default starting point for analyzing midterm election results. Thus, the Democrats began this year with the expectation that everything else being equal they would lose House seats in the election.

We can layer other structural factors on top of this basic expectation. Satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S., at 21%, is the lowest for midterm years since Gallup began tracking satisfaction. Satisfaction is related to election outcomes. Historically, big losses in House seats by the president’s party have occurred in years when satisfaction was below 40%. That includes satisfaction at 24% in 1982, when Reagan’s party lost 28 seats, satisfaction at 30% in 1994, when President Clinton’s party lost 54 seats, and satisfaction at 35% in 2006, when President Bush’s party lost 30 seats.

So, we add low levels of citizen satisfaction as another predictor of a loss of seats by the president’s party.

Approval of the way Congress is doing its job is at 21%, which is very low by historical standards (although not the lowest in its history, which was 14% in July 2008). Let’s go back to the aforementioned elections of 1982, 1994, and 2006, when the president’s party lost a lot of House seats. Congress approval in those three years was 29%, 23%, and 26% respectively -- all low, but actually slightly higher than the current Congress approval rating.

Congress approval can be added to the list of predictors of a loss of seats by the president’s party.

A third structural factor this year is the economy. This is the most important issue in this election. My colleague Jeff Jones has just finished reviewing new Gallup data on the salience of the economy to voters. Given a choice of five different issues, voters most frequently choose “economic conditions” as the most important issue driving their midterm vote. There was no exception to this finding across party lines. Democrats, Republicans, and independents all were most likely to choose the economy.

If the economy was booming, this would be good news for the party in power. That’s not the case. The economy is decidedly not booming. Americans continue month after month to name the economy as the most important problem facing our country, dwarfing all other issues. Gallup’s economic confidence measures remain mired in negative territory. A lonely 14% of Americans rate the U.S. economy as excellent or good. A majority continue to say the economy is getting worse, not better. These economic confidence ratings are slightly improved so far this month. But they remain dismally negative.

Voters tend to displace their negative emotions about economic conditions onto the party in power. This represents more bad news for the Democrats.

So, we add another variable to the list of predictors of a loss of seats by Democrats this year --the bad economy.

We can summarize: Knowing nothing else, one would predict that Democrats would lose House seats this year because it is an off-year election with a Democrat in the White House, because satisfaction with the way things are going is low, because Congress approval is low, and because the economy is rated poorly.

Structurally, it would be a very significant deviation from predictive logic were the Democrats not to lose House seats.

On top of these structural factors, there are several more specific issues at work this year. One of these is the activation of unusual enthusiasm about voting among conservative Republicans. There are multiple and debatable causes for this phenomenon. One thing is clear, however. There has been a coupling this year of a dislike of the power and scope of the federal government among conservatives with an assumption that the president and Democrats are focused on increasing the power and scope of the federal government. These two attitudes have coalesced and produced substantial emotional energy on the right side of the political spectrum. The most visible manifestation of this has been the Tea Party movement, although the activation of voter interest is wider than just within that one group. The low levels of satisfaction with the way things are going in the country, the disapproval of Congress, and angst over the economy have all provided a fertile environment for the development of these emotions.

Increased turnout among specific voter segments is particularly important in a low turnout, midterm election. It adds one more building block to the Republican-oriented structure of these midterm elections.

There are other issues at play as well, including the tenuous hold that some newly elected Democrats have on seats they gained during the strongly Democratic year of 2008. Plus, there are 435 individual votes taking place this year in congressional districts across the country, and each such election has its own idiosyncratic peculiarities and personalities and issues. But the mood of the country, coupled with the perception of a bad economy and the emotional anger against big government bubbling up from the right, layer an anti-Democratic blanket over local level issues and campaigning.

Friday, October 22, 2010

More on Gallup's Likely Voter Models

Election years are high tension experiences, as any candidate for office will attest. Pollsters aren’t immune from the slings and arrows that go along with the emotional, combative environment that surrounds elections. We’ve been working at the business of providing pre-election estimates of the state of the electorate in presidential elections since 1936 and in midterm elections since 1950. Each year it seems somebody will not like or take issue with certain of our results.

We obviously think there is great value in collective wisdom. So we are always happy to share data relating to our pre-election surveying and analysis, and to explain our procedures and results in depth. We have learned and continue to learn from insights and questions offered by scholars and other observers who take the time to carefully look at the data and make suggestions. That’s the nature of science.

Midterm years are usually a little calmer than presidential years. But critics have popped up this year just as we have learned to expect. People have contacted us here at Gallup and asked us to respond to one recent such situation, a critique posted by our old friend Alan Abramowitz from Emory University. I say old friend because Alan is a fairly regular correspondent with us here at Gallup, providing us with his unfettered opinions on a fairly consistent basis when he doesn’t agree with poll results, frequently accompanied by requests for data or background. We actually put as much of our data as possible online already (see here and here as examples), but as is the case for any scholar, we respond as much as we can to Alan’s queries. Most recently we provided Alan, at his request, with in-depth internals on the three models of the electorate from our Sept. 27-Oct. 10 dataset.

Well, Alan wrote a hardly laudatory piece using those data -- which you can read here -- and that’s what others have asked us to respond to. We looked carefully through what he wrote, and mainly came away with the impression that he did not like what the overall results were showing -- a double-digit Republican lead among likely voters. Having the in-depth Gallup tabs in hand, Alan took issue with various voting patterns among subgroups, mainly saying that they were "too Republican". But of course, in a situation in which the Republicans have a historically high lead on the generic ballot, Republicans will mathematically have a historically high lead in many of the subgroups within the overall pools of voters. That point should, for most observers, go without saying.

One of the specifics of Alan’s micro-analysis of estimated votes among smaller subgroups focused on “nonblack, nonwhites.” That’s actually a group not represented in the cross-tabular data we typically use and was not in the data provided Alan, but one Alan apparently attempted to identify by performing his own calculations. (Typically a scholar would contact us or inquire about aspects of the data they are unsure of, but I don’t believe we heard from Alan on this one.) In this particular case, we would have told Alan that nonwhites in our usual procedures is a broad, mixed group of respondents, including blacks, Hispanics, Asians, other races, and a significant number of respondents who chose not to identify their race. Alan attempted to make guesses or assumptions about the composition of this group, and made an assumption as a result that Hispanics in the likely voter sample must be too Republican in voting orientation.

In fact, like most pollsters, we typically are cautious and do not report data for subgroups when there is low sample size involved. Hispanics are one of these. Certainly our analyses of broad, aggregated datasets has shown that Hispanic registered voters as a national group skew Democratic, as we have pointed out many times. But Gallup has also shown that Hispanics’ support for President Obama tumbled into the low 50s earlier this year and has only recently recovered some. Further, among likely voters within all subgroups, those most likely to vote this year are disproportionately Republican in their orientation compared to the subgroup as a whole.

In any instance, shifts in the voting estimates of a relatively small segment of voters is not going to change the overall ballot estimate for Republicans and for Democrats by more than a point or two. Of course, shifts in the voting estimates of larger segments of voters -- like whites -- will affect the overall ballot estimates. Alan, in fact, criticizes the report of voting choices of whites in the Sept. 27-Oct. 3 dataset as too Republican. But that’s basically tautological, as I mentioned above, given the large percentage of the sample that is white. Yes, if one thinks that the overall ballot is implausibly Republican, then one is going to think that the ballot among whites is implausibly Republican as well, and vice versa.

As experienced polling analysts know, micro-analysis of tabular data can cause one to miss the forest for the trees. Most available polling data find that this year has -- to date --been an extraordinary year for Republicans in the battle for control of the House. Gallup data and a number of other polls confirm that voters up to this point in time are more heavily Republican that we have seen in modern midterm elections. Of course, the structure of this race may yet change in the remaining week and a half of the campaign, and if it does, our subsequent data should reflect it.

Our likely voter modeling of the midterm generic ballot has historically been quite accurate. We have spent a lot of time focusing on it over the years. Gallup held a widely attended public conference on the generic ballot at our Washington, D.C., headquarters in May, and at that point fully explained and discussed the value of the generic ballot and ways that it can be used and modeled. We received excellent input at that point and have continued to take any suggestions and insights from outside observers seriously.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Obama Has Tough Challenge With Youth Vote

President Obama continues his efforts to increase election enthusiasm among young voters, as Peter Rucker of The Washington Post notes “ . . . stepping up his [Obama’s] effort to convince the young and minority voters who supported him in 2008 to return to the polls this fall . . .” These efforts include new television ads aimed at the young, and a special “youth town hall” to be broadcast on MTV and other networks Thursday afternoon.

Obama is almost 50 himself (he was born in 1961), but it is widely assumed that he was able to capture the imaginations of young voters in his 2008 presidential campaign. He is attempting to re-capture those imaginations this year. Since Obama himself is not on the ballot, his attempts come down to an effort to transfer his personal appeal to Democratic candidates in House and Senate races across the country.

Obama has indeed maintained his disproportionately positive image among younger Americans. Gallup’s latest weekly job approval averages show Obama's job approval among18- to 29-year-olds at 59%, well above his 46% overall average last week (and even further above the anemic 38% job approval rating Obama gets from voters 65 years and older).

But when it comes to increasing turnout among the young, Obama has his work cut out for him. Young voters historically are less likely to be involved in the voting process than their elders. We see no signs so far this year that this traditional pattern has been disrupted.

Let’s look at enthusiasm. Back in March of this year, 19% of 18- to 29-year-old registered voters we interviewed said they were very enthusiastic about voting. That compared to 32% of those 30- to 49-year-olds, and 40% of those 50 years and older. Fast forward to our most recent compilation of data, collected between Sept. 30 and Oct. 10. Now, 23% of 18- to 29-year-olds are very enthusiastic about voting, up slightly. Those aged 30 to 49 years are actually down slightly, to 27% very enthusiastic. But the “very enthusiastic” numbers among those aged 50 to 64 years and 65 years and older have risen to 43% and 49%, respectively.

In other words, 18- to 29-year-olds are still bringing up the rear in terms of voting enthusiasm.

There’s other data. As my colleague Lydia Saad has pointed out, only 8% of the likely voter pool at this point consists of 18- to 29-year-olds, about on par with previous midterm elections. That’s about half of 18- to 29-year-olds’ overall representation in the national adult population. When we move from all national adults to likely voters, in short, the representation of young voters drops in half. Meanwhile the proportion of those 50 years and older increases. Indeed, while Americans 65 years and older are about 20% of the overall national adult population by our estimates, they constitute 27% of likely voters.

Again, this pattern is not unusual. Older people are much more likely in general to vote than are younger people.

As Obama and his advisers know, there are two ways to gain votes in an election, particularly a low-turnout midterm election. First, you change people’s minds -- particularly independent voters who may be wavering between candidates or basically haven’t thought much about the election. Second, you get your already-committed voters out to the polls.

There’s no question -- as I noted above in reference to Obama job approval -- that younger voters already tilt in the Democratic direction. In our latest Sept. 30-Oct. 10 polling, 18- to 29-year-old registered voters swing for the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate by a 55% to 37% margin. That’s not a 100% Democratic orientation, but certainly different than the 47% to 44% Republican tilt among all registered voters.

In other words, for every 10 voters aged 18 to 29 years that come to the polls, about five and a half will vote for the Democratic candidate and four for the Republican candidate.

Of course, those young people who are going to listen to Obama are the Democratically oriented ones to begin with. So -- again -- Obama and his political team’s major issue is simply to get these young people registered and then to vote. So far, the data show that’s going to be a challenge.

Copyright © 2010 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. | Terms of Use | Privacy Statement