Of all the data that could be mined from the exit polls from the 2010 election cycle, to my eyes the most extraordinary is this singular stat:
Opinion of Democratic Party: 44% Favorable 52% Unfavorable
Opinion of Republican Party: 41% Favorable 53% Unfavorable
Amid the wreckage that was strewn over the political landscape from one of the most calamitous electoral outcomes in Democratic Party history, the electorate that turned them out of the majority in the House actually disliked their opposition more.
A number of analysts (myself included) openly wondered if the GOP's designs on reclaiming the House might be hamstrung by the fact that the Republican Party brand name might be as damaged as the Democrats had become. In fact, on Election Day 2010, the GOP brand name was held in even higher disregard than the Democrats.
And, of course, it ultimately did not matter. The unpopularity of the GOP did not prevent it from picking up over five dozen House seats, to say nothing of a half-dozen Senate seats, several governors' mansions, and an alarming number of state legislatures.
As it happened, voter discontent trumped all other considerations. It was a phenomenon that our polling partners at PPP discovered ... way back in 2009. Check out this analysis from November of 2009, as it related to some polling PPP had done in Arkansas:
It's a commonly accepted fact that Congressional Democrats are unpopular but Congressional Republicans are even more unpopular.
That's true but it shouldn't be taken as an indication that Democrats are going to be fine in 2010 because there's a pretty significant group of the electorate that dislikes both parties and they're overwhelmingly planning to vote Republican next year because they think it at least provides an opportunity for change.
Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District is a good example of this. 16% of voters there don't like the Democrats or the Republicans. But they give all three of Democratic Congressman Vic Snyder's potential opponents leads of 37-40 points and they give the possible Blanche Lincoln foes we tested leads of 42-43 points.
Indeed, that was a big part of the story in 2010. Of the majority of Americans who disapproved of the GOP, nearly a quarter of them wound up voting Republican anyway.
The moral of the story: an angry electorate does not behave predictably.
If anything, the 2012 electorate is shaping up to be even angrier than the one that confronted us in 2010. The right track/wrong track metric right now is nearing historic lows, as you can see above. The numbers for 2010, by comparison, were markedly more optimistic. They were still lousy, of course (34 percent right track/61 percent wrong track), but not nearly as bad as today.
Just as voter discontent in 2010 led to some counterintuitive results on Election Day, the same might hold true in 2012.
Here's one notion a lot of good Democrats take as an article of faith: the GOP field is such an array of unpopular, unelectable ne'er-do-wells that they will cement President Obama's re-election.
There is no question that, as presently configured, the GOP field has no juggernaut in the mix that strikes fear into the hearts of all. All of them have middling favorability numbers, at best. All of them have some policy position that stands to be an albatross around their necks come November of 2012.
Furthermore, there can be no doubt that the inherent weakness of the GOP field is an aid to the president. The fact that he is still at parity in national trial heats, despite weak approval numbers, is evidence enough of that. Only one president in the modern era (Harry Truman—1948) was able to earn re-election with approval numbers like this.
But the potentially terrifying bottom line is that if voters are pissed enough, and they take it out on the president, virtually none of the Republicans in the field are totally unelectable.
Don't believe me? Consider two points of data.
Consider three ideological train wrecks from 2010. Thanks to them, the Democrats maintained their Senate majority. I'm speaking, of course, of Ken Buck (Colorado), Sharron Angle (Nevada) and Christine O'Donnell (Delaware).
All three share four things in common. All of them were considered faithfully right-wing consdervative firebrands. All of them defeated more moderate alternatives in Republican primaries. All of them lost to Democrats in what were once considered GOP pickup opportunities.
And all of them, without exception, took a higher percentage of the vote than a considerably more sane Republican (John McCain) had done in 2008. Even O'Donnell, a batshit crazy Republican in a reliably blue state, took over 40 percent of the vote. Buck came within an eyelash of emerging victorious in purple Colorado.
The second data point comes, again, courtesy of our pals at PPP. In the majority of their presidential polling (an example can be found here), there have been far more Republicans and Indies undecided than there have been Democrats. Therefore, a 45-42 Obama lead is actually a bit less than it seems. One has to assume that Republicans will coalesce around their candidate once his/her name is known. A similar polling trend happened in 2008, when John McCain briefly had an artificially high lead in the latter stages of the Democratic primary.
The Iowa Electronic Markets, as of Saturday, had the president as a very slight underdog for 2012, as does Intrade. In August, right here on Sunday Kos, I did a microanalysis of the president's job approval in the 50 states, which was perhaps a bit more optimistic about Obama's prospects.
However, if the president's job approval ratings remain in the low 40s, and the right track/wrong track metric remains mired in the teens, his re-election is going to hinge on having an especially bad performance from an especially undesirable Republican nominee. That could happen, but a betting man would not like the odds. Angry voters tend to vote retroactively.
That's why I suspect we are finally seeing a more aggressive tone from the president. Part of it may well be playing "to the base." A reemergence of the 2010 enthusiasm gap would spell the end of the Obama presidency. But an equal part of it might be owed to the fact that the president could seriously bolster his chances with both Democrats and persuadable Independents by giving voters the sense that he is trying to inspire major changes. When nearly 80 percent of Americans think the country is off on the right track, bold prescriptions could be the cure for what ails the president's re-election campaign.
What gave Republicans the House in 2010, as their abysmal approval ratings at the time should have made clear, was not any public affection for their candidates or their policies. Rather, it was the fact that voter anger was concentrated entirely in one direction. Republicans could uniformly run "against Washington," and they could pull it off, since they weren't formally in control of anything.
That won't be the case in 2012. Voter anger could be directed at a Democratic president, but it can also be directed at a Republican House. It's no accident that Republican performances in a generic congressional ballot test have slid noticeably this year (well, when you factor Rasmussen out of the equation). In addition, the presumption that Republicans would be heavily bolstered by redistricting seems less likely than originally thought. GOP plans to their benefit have been offset by gains for Democrats elsewhere, leading to what has amounted, basically, to a wash.
Furthermore, my suspicion is that potential Republican woes in the House will only be enhanced by the presidential campaign, especially if there becomes a widespread sense that a Republican president is a better-than-average possibility.
Much like in 1996, when the Republicans very cleverly closed the general election campaign with their "don't hand Bill Clinton a blank check" ad campaign, the thought of unified Republican rule will probably not sit well with American voters.
Based on the unique dynamics of the Senate campaign picture, virtually everyone agrees that the Senate will be a tough hold for the Democrats. A narrow majority, coupled with being burdened with twice as many seats to defend, means that the Democrats will essentially have to draw an inside straight to keep the Senate. Therefore, if voters desire partisan balance (which, with both parties having pretty lousy numbers right now, would seem to be more likely than not), their vehicle of choice will necessarily be the House.
As often as they've sparred, it is a bit strange to consider the fact that Barack Obama and John Boehner may well have their political fates intertwined. An angry electorate could lead to a Republican White House. But, if it does, it makes it considerably more likely that there will be a Democratic House of Representatives to accompany it.