By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2010; A2
What happens if they hold an election in which voters don't like either of their choices?
We'll find out in 43 days, as poll after poll shows that both national parties are deeply unpopular with an electorate looking for something new and different. Democrats have suffered from being the majority party for the past 20 months - in control of political Washington and expected to do more by voters who elected President Obama to change the culture in the nation's capital. But Republicans are not offering much that will earn them credit in the eyes of most voters, either.
In an Associated Press poll released last week, 38 percent of respondents approved of the job Democrats in Congress are doing, while 60 percent disapproved - not exactly where any party wants to be this close to an election. The ratings for Republicans in Congress, however, were even worse, with 31 percent approving and 68 percent disapproving. A New York Times/CBS News survey released last week also showed congressional Democrats' approval rating at a measly 30 percent, while congressional Republicans' rating sat at a ghastly 20 percent.
And in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this month, voters expressed a distinct desire not to reelect incumbents in either party. Just 34 percent said Democrats deserved reelection, while 31 percent said Republicans did. The deep unpopularity of the GOP brand is one of the last vestiges of hope for Democrats seeking to retain their majorities in the House and Senate in what - if history is any guide - is shaping up to be a difficult midterm election season for the party.
There is no great affection for the Republican Party in this country, a senior Obama administration official said last week. That creates the opportunity for competitive races district by district.
The official noted that the GOP's unpopularity marks a critical difference between the election this November and the midterms of 1994, when the party's sweep of more than 50 House seats won it the majority for the first time in 40 years. Then, the official argued, Republicans had been out of power for more than four decades and voters were ready to try something different. This time, voters know what they would be getting with Republicans in charge and don't like it, the source said.
Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster involved in a number of competitive House races, said that the GOP's unpopularity matters a good deal, adding: "The 2010 Republicans are clearly not the 1994 Republicans, in which the latter not only had the advantage of anti-Democratic sentiment, but a GOP with solid ratings and the Contract With America." Republicans, while largely acknowledging that the gains they make this fall will be less an affirmation of their agenda than a rejection of Democratic policies, argued that Democrats are whistling past the graveyard if they think the low numbers for the GOP brand will drastically affect the election.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who has conducted a series of House race surveys for the conservative-aligned American Action Forum, insisted that the coming midterms will be a referendum on the party in power, not a choice between the two sides - particularly among key independent voters.
"I believe it is important for Republicans to spell out their vision of an alternative future, not only to slip the 'party of no' punch, but also to lay out a governing agenda should they come to power," Ayres said. "But low marks for Republicans are just not that relevant to the judgment the voters are going to make on Nov. 2."
Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster with the well-regarded Public Opinion Strategies firm, pointed to victories by Republican Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia, as well as Republican Scott Brown in the special Senate election in Massachusetts, as evidence that voters' low opinions of Republicans haven't mattered all that much in this election cycle.
Bolger added, however: "This is the first time where there has ever been data like this - where the party poised to take control has not improved its image, so we won't know until November if it matters."