The American public's dissatisfaction with their representation in Congress -- and their willingness to let someone else have a shot -- are at historic highs in a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, a sign that incumbents -- everywhere -- need to be worried.
More than six in 10 Americans said it's time to give a "new person a chance" to represent them in Congress while just 29 percent said they felt as though their own member of Congress deserved to be reelected. The "give someone else a try" number has never been higher in NBC-WSJ polling. The last time the desire to try someone new was even close to where it is today was in the summer of 2010, just a few months before a whopping 58 Democratic incumbents lost in a massive wave election for Republicans. In October 1994, just before Republicans surged to retake the House majority, 49 percent of Americans said they wanted someone new while 39 percent said their own member of Congress deserved reelection.
Before House Members begin panicking, it's worth noting a few caveats with these numbers:
* It's October 2013, not October 2014. Congress has just gone through a terrible last few months in the eyes of the public as they shut down the government and brought the country to the edge of default. It's not unreasonable to imagine this is a low-ebb moment for Congress in terms of public opinion. How could they possibly screw up worse than they have since late this summer?
* Comparing your current member of Congress -- with warts and all -- to the idealized thought of "someone new" is something of an unfair fight. Would you rather have your current house -- with its creaky water heater and drafty windows -- or a brand new house that could be perfect? You choose the new house every time. We know what we don't like about what we have. We have endless faith that the thing we don't know is better. Grass always greener and all that. The reality is that on the ballot next year, there won't be your congressman and "a new person." It will be your congressman and another politician with his/her own strengths and weaknesses. That is likely to make for a more competitive matchup.
* There's evidence in other places in the NBC-WSJ poll that the traditional disconnect between hating Congress and loving your own member of said Congress exists. Three-quarters (74 percent) of respondents agreed with the statement that "Congress is contributing to the problems in Washington." But, when asked whether their own member was contributing to the problem, just 43 percent said yes. (Worth noting: That 43 percent number is far higher than the 30 percent who said the same in April 1992 or the 21 percent who said the same in October 1991.)
Still, the political environment is absolutely toxic for anyone with "Rep." or "Sen." before his or her name. "If a candidate files against an incumbent in a primary, that incumbent needs to be on their toes regardless of party," Republican pollster Glen Bolger told us recently. "Incumbents are presumed guilty and need to prove that they don’t have the blood of a dysfunctional Washington on their hands. At least for now, there is no coasting in 2014.”
That's not to say we will be looking at large-scale losses for either side come November 2014. The lack of genuinely competitive House districts -- thanks gerrymandering! -- makes the bar very high for either side to make lots of pickups. But that doesn't mean that incumbents won't lose primaries. These numbers suggest political peril is everywhere for elected officials.