Americans have never liked Congress, but today’s rankings -- by way of The Washington Post and ABC News -- show a titanic amount of anger and discontent with the legislative body. Just 14 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing -- a rating lower than what it was before the 1994, 2006, and 2010 congressional elections, and the absolute lowest approval of Congress in the poll’s 20-year history. What’s more, 62 percent of Americans say they strongly disapprove of Congress, and congressional approval is extremely low among all self-identified partisans: Just 18 percent of Democrats, 13 percent of Republicans, and 13 percent of independents approve of Congress.
It’s worth noting that this lines up with the last month of Gallup surveys on congressional approval. According to the most recent poll -- conducted in mid-September -- congressional approval is down to 15 percent, the lowest in Gallup’s 36 years of polling on the topic. President Obama fares a little better in comparison, but even his approval ratings have been in steady decline since the beginning of this year. Another economic downturn -- or continued stagnation -- could plunge his ratings even further.
Between the historic disapproval of Congress and President Obama’s declining popularity, you can see something of an outline for the 2012 elections. A third wave of anti-incumbent discontent sends House Republicans to the bleachers and returns Democrats to their majority, if only by a slim margin. By that same token, however, Democrats could lose their weak grip on the Senate, and Barack Obama could lose the White House. In other words, the partisan alignment of government would reverse itself as voters rage against everyone in office, not just Democrats.
Of course, there are a few realities that make this outcome less likely than it seems. Because of their lock on state legislatures, Republicans can use redistricting to turn marginal districts into safe ones -- or at least competitive seats. Likewise, they can stack Democratic areas with friendly voters -- thus limiting the total number of competitive districts -- or redistrict them out of existence (as has happened in Georgia, for instance).
As for the White House, President Obama isn’t down and out yet. Not only does he maintain solid favorability ratings, but according to the aforementioned Washington Post/ABC News poll, Americans trust him over the GOP to create jobs by a 15 point margin -- 49 percent to 34 percent. Moreover, the two candidates most likely to win the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, have substantial weaknesses of their own. Perry is on the right-wing bank of Republican politics and could alienate mainstream voters, even in a poor economy. Romney, on the other hand, has the right look and credentials, but his significant wealth is a real liability in a world where the president has donned the mantle of warrior for the middle class, against a mass of wealthy Americans who have thrived despite widespread economic misery.
Of the many variables in a presidential election, public hate is the toughest to account for. Americans have never been as angry as they are now, and this will change the 2012 dynamic in ways that are hard to predict.