Will there be a GOP sabotage backlash in '12?

A new poll suggests half of all voters are open to the idea that Republicans are deliberately hindering the economy

Published November 7, 2011 6:05PM (EST)

John Boehner and Eric Cantor        (AP)
John Boehner and Eric Cantor (AP)

Greg Sargent keyed in this morning on a particular finding in a new poll from the Washington Post and ABC News:

Now the new Post poll has asked a question that comes very close to measuring this sentiment on a national level — and it finds that half of Americans think Republicans are blocking Obama’s good faith efforts to fix the economy for political reasons:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your point of view? Statement A: (President Obama is making a good faith effort to deal with the country’s economic problems, but the Republicans in Congress are playing politics by blocking his proposals and programs.) Or Statement B: (President Obama has not provided leadership on the economy, and he is just blaming the Republicans in Congress as an excuse for not doing his job.)

Obama making a good effort 50

Obama has not provided leadership 44

As Sargent goes on to point out, while this judgment seems damning for Republicans, there's actually not much evidence elsewhere in the data that it's affecting voters' overall willingness to trust them on the economy, or to ultimately apply blame to Obama. I think this suggests a few possible interpretations:

  • The power of backward-working logic: Swing voters generally seem to make their bottom-line judgments about presidents based on economic conditions. If their anxiety is high, they rationalize their way to blaming the president; if it's low, they rationalize their way to giving him credit -- even if it means embracing faulty or contradictory logic. If that's what Obama is up against here, there may not be much he can do to exploit findings like this, as long as the economy is a wreck. No matter how many apparent GOP vulnerabilities are exposed in polling, the end result won't change: Swing voters will find a way to convince themselves that Obama is still ultimately responsible.
  • But maybe voters just need to hear more about sabotage: The most noteworthy thing about this finding could be how little attention the sabotage charge has actually received in the political debate. Sure, there are some Democrats who've suggested that Republicans see hurting the economy as electorally beneficial, but it's hardly been a standard talking point. The entire concept seems relatively new to the political debate. A Lexis/Nexis search from 1992, the last time a president (George H.W. Bush) was seeking reelection with a rotten economy and with the other party controlling Congress, finds poll data about or campaign trail accusations of economic sabotage. So if Democrats press this message, maybe it will matter to swing voters and boost Obama.
  • Or it it may be nothing new at all: Surveys are constantly being conducted nowadays, with all sorts of questions that pollsters never before thought to ask. Sometimes the results seem startling. Who would have guessed that half of Americans think that the 14th Amendment's guarantee of birthright citizenship ought to be repealed? Maybe Americans have been making these kinds of judgments about opposition parties for years; maybe they even made them about congressional Democrats back in 1992, and we just didn't know it.
  • Forget Obama -- but what about the House and Senate? Even if voters end up blaming Obama next fall despite their concerns about the GOP, there's still the matter of congressional elections. And the GOP may have a problem there. Just look at the latest Quinnipiac poll, which finds that just 28 percent of voters view the Republican Party favorably, with 57 percent holding an unfavorable view. A year ago, before the GOP took over the House, that spread was 40/45 percent. Democrats, by contrast, have a 36/49 favorable/unfavorable score now -- essentially unchanged from where they were a year ago. And Quinnipiac's generic ballot question found that 42 percent of voters say they currently plan to vote for the Democrats in next year's congressional races, and only 34 percent for the GOP -- the largest margin that either party has enjoyed in Quinnipiac's generic ballot all year. The last time a party lost the national popular vote in the presidential election but gained congressional seats came in 1992, when Bush's Republicans picked up nine House seats. That number was actually something of a disappointment for the GOP, which initially thought that the House banking scandal would lead to a pick-up of 20 or more seats. Clearly, Bush's defeat dragged down their House prospects. But gains are gains, and it's not impossible that Democrats could post their own next year even if Obama goes down to defeat.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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