The latest New York Times/CBS News poll offers Democrats some good news and some bad news. It’s worth pausing to appreciate how the former affects the latter.
First, consider the news Dems will be eager to hear. The public generally agrees with Democrats on the major issues of the day – immigration, minimum wage, health care, and marriage equality – and on more general topics such as compromise, economic inequality, how best to reduce the deficit, and the value of social-insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security. The same poll found Democrats are more popular than Republicans and more in line with voters’ priorities.
Then consider the news Democrats won’t like at all.
Those stances among voters have not translated into support for the president’s party, as 42 percent say they will back Republicans in November, and 39 percent indicate that they will back Democrats, a difference within the poll’s margin of sampling error.
I imagine Democratic officials would find this quite frustrating. They enjoy the edge on pretty much every possible question, right up until poll respondents were asked who they intend to vote for – and the answer is, the more unpopular party, which the mainstream disagrees with on nearly everything, is the one with more support.
Of course, it leads to a fairly obvious question: if Republicans are more unpopular; voters disagree with them on nearly everything; the GOP has no accomplishments or agenda to speak of; and they’re responsible for the ridiculous government shutdown just a few months ago, how is it that they have the edge over Democrats when it comes to the midterm elections?
The obvious answer is that voting isn’t always rational – trying to make sense of folks’ political decision-making process can be an incredibly frustrating experience, regardless of party or ideology.
But more substantively, looking at this new poll in particular, there’s also reason to believe voters are unsatisfied with the status quo and they’re blaming President Obama – even if they agree with him on the issues that matter most; even if it’s congressional Republicans blocking the policy agenda the American mainstream wants to see implemented.
This has long been part of the GOP calculus. Many voters have no real sense of how federal policymaking works and have no use for things like filibusters or discharge petitions. Much of the country has no idea who’s in the majority of which chamber and/or whether there’s a division of power on Capitol Hill.
What they do know is that Washington is a dysfunctional mess in which nothing is getting done. The American mainstream may not know who, exactly, to blame and why, but they seem inclined to blame the president because, well, he’s the president.
This has come up plenty of times before. The public wants something; Obama agrees with them; congressional Republicans kill the idea; and the president gets blamed. It’s driven by mistaken institutional assumptions – many like to think a president is ultimately responsible for all political progress or the lack thereof. Americans like to think of their president – any president – as the most powerful person on the planet. POTUS is the Leader of the Free World and the Commander in Chief. He’s the Top Dog, the Big Cheese, the Head Honcho, the One in Charge, and the one with whom the buck stops.
Why would voters be prepared to vote for the party they don’t like and don’t agree with? Because as plenty of presidents in their sixth year can attest, sometimes not being the party in the White House is all it takes.