And our message is ... um ...
First, a little background. There was a Rasumssen survey conducted about 10 days ago that showed that voters overwhelmingly believe - by an 81% to 10% margin - that most members of Congress are more interested in helping their own careers than in helping people. 44% say most members of Congress are "corrupt," 38% say they are not, 19% are not sure. There could be a definitional issue at work, here, since 70% of respondents said that most members of Congress are willing to sell their vote for a campaign contribution, up from 56% in 2007. 56% say it's likely that their own representative in Congress has sold his or her vote.
Then we have a USA Today/Gallup poll released back in September: in that poll 44 percent of voters that are backing Republican candidates said that their preference is "more a vote against the Democratic candidate" compared to 48 percent that said it is "more a vote for the Republican candidate." Another 5 percent said it is "both equally." Polls have consistently shown that Obama is more popular than either Democrats or Republicans in Congress. Up until the past two weeks Democrats in Congress were viewed more favorably than Republicans, but those numbers tied up recently (at an approval rating of around 32%).
So our background going into last night was deep distrust of Congress, and no great love for either party. Now let's look at the exit polls.
Health care reform did not drive the results overall (although it may have been the kiss of death for Feingold). Re: health care, 48% want to repeal "Obamacare," but a different 47% or so wanted to see the program expanded or left as is. Anyway, health care was not the top priority: 62% said the economy was the top priority, versus only 18% for health care.
And what is the mandate for the new Congress on the economy? It's a bit hard to say: asked to name the highest priority for the new Congress, 37% chose "spending to create jobs"; a different 37% said "reducing the deficit." 39% favor extending the Bush tax cuts for all income levels. Nevertheless, it is certainly clear that voters are deeply worried about the state of the economy, and rightly so. But at the same time, 60% of respondents said their own family's financial situation is the same or better than it was two years ago; the 40% who say their situation is worse voted heavily in favor of Republican candidates.
Things get even more confusing, if anything, when we look at responses to the question of whom voters blame for the economic crisis: 35% say Wall Street bankers, 29% say George W Bush, 24% say Obama. On the classic right track/wrong track question, 35% say the country is on the right track versus 62% who choose "wrong track." In 2008 the numbers were even worse -- 21% right track to 74% wrong track.
All of which points to three conclusions:
1) On the issues, voters are angry because they think the Democrats bailed out banks, insurance companies, and car companies, but did little to help individuals and small businesses. Democrats will claim this is not true, citing the CBO estimate of 3 million jobs saved. Regarding small businesses, Democrats will point to the Small Business Jobs Bill passed in September that provides tax breaks ($12 billion) and direct loans ($30 billion) for small businesses. But this kind of direct stimulus for small businesses is a recent innovation: for most of the period of his administration, Obama has relied on giving money to banks in the hopes that they would resume lending. This was essentially a revival of the "trickle down" theory of economic growth, applied in a different context. It didn't worked well. Banks are presently sitting on record amounts of money, but lending by those banks -- and specifically small business lending -- is actually decreasing.
In other words, the voters have a point. On the other hand, the Republican response is not clear. Since almost all Republican candidates have pledged to undo the stimulus efforts, those tax cuts will presumably be repealed and the direct lending program will presumably be ended. The same goes for the middle class tax cuts that were the centerpiece of the stimulus program, the $26 billion supplemental stimulus package for the states that was adopted in August, the 0% loans to banks, and so on. The "stimulus" is a whole bunch of different things, and the House leadership would be well advised to be careful in taking an axe to all of them at once. Even with the supplemental stimulus the states laid off 58,000 teachers in September -- what's going to happen next year when that money is taken away?
2) As a matter of electoral politics, the GOP is on a short leash. As the poll results above indicate, the voters have mixed feelings on specific issues, and extremely high levels of frustration overall. That means the new House leadership is likely to have a rather short time in which to produce tangible results, or those same voters may turn on them in 2012. That's the reason many analysts are saying that the Republican victory in the House is a blessing in disguise for Obama as he looks ahead to running for re-election. (More troubling for the White House -- nearly 50% of Democrats in one poll said they hope that he faces a primary challenge.) It is worth keeping in mind that Obama's popularity rating right now is almost exactly the same as Reagan's in 1982.
3) As a matter of party politics, the GOP leadership is likely facing a very fractious caucus in the House and a leadership struggle in the Senate. And a lot of very tough choices. As I noted above, "the stimulus" is a whole bunch of different things, some of which should be very popular among conservative as well as liberal voters. The same goes for health care reform. For example, while public opinion on health care reform is split, some individual elements are very popular (being permitted to stay on your parents' insurance until 26, no exclusions for pre-existing conditions, interstate competition through exchanges) even while some other elements are highly unpopular (an incredibly burdensome system of paperwork that small business owners, in particular, are quite right to complain about, the mandate to purchase insurance, the required coverage levels). It would take surgical precision to navigate the politics of choosing among these various provisions, and the incoming GOP caucus does not strike me as poised to demonstrate that kind of finesse.
So expect a lot of very tough battles both within the Republican caucus and across the aisle. There is a high likelihood of gridlock. On the Democratic side, expect the immediate formation of the circular firing squad. Oh, and investigations. Expect lots and lots of investigations.
So there we go: the People Have Spoken.