Friday Potpourri: Polls, Money & Ted Stevens


It’s Friday. There’s plenty of news in the air, but most of it on subjects – like the disintegrating Middle East – that don’t relate directly to money and politics. So it’s time for some end-of-the-week miscellany. Let’s start with polls.

Beware early polls – especially generic ones. The AP has a story today on an Associated Press-Ipsos Poll that shows that “Americans by an almost 3-to-1 margin hold the GOP-controlled Congress in low regard and profess a desire to see Democrats wrest control after a dozen years of Republican rule.”

What the story doesn’t say is that Americans generally hold Congress in low regard no matter which party is leading it. That three-to-one margin really means that only about one person in three thinks Congress is doing a good job. That is not remotely the same as saying there’s a grass-roots revolt in the air and the voters will throw the bums out in November, which the story implies. It may happen, but personally I’m betting against it.

I’ve got nothing against polls – they can be immensely valuable, especially when the same questions are asked over time, like approval ratings for the President. But I have a healthy skepticism for how they’re spun, especially generic polls like this one that don’t mention candidate names. Sure Americans mistrust Congress. They almost always have, and I can confidently predict that this trend will not disappear any time soon.

But generic unhappiness does not translate into dramatic power shifts – at least in mid-term elections. Even in 1994, when the Republicans stormed into power on Capitol Hill, the reelection rate for incumbent House members was 90%. It rose to 94% in 1996, 96% in 2002, and peaked at 98% in 1998, 2000 and 2004.

How do incumbents keep getting reelected so reliably when the public is so steamed at Congress as a whole? There are lots of reasons, with safe districts and a towering advantage in campaign funds leading the list.

Next time you read a poll that suggests that congressional heads will roll on election day like they did in the French Revolution – today is Bastille Day, after all – keep this little factoid in mind: In every election since 1988 (when I first started tracking it), more than half the congressional districts in the country featured “races” with incumbents outspending their challengers by a margin of 10-to-one or more. In short, the challengers weren’t simply outspent, they were all but invisible.

That’s why there’s so little turnover in Congress, no matter what the national mood as measured in opinion polls.

And now for something completely different. If you’ve been following the Internet Neutrality bill – or if you haven’t – you owe it to yourself to check out the explanation by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) of how the Internet works. Or rather, check out the Internet’s reaction to Senator Stevens, via the “DJ Ted Stevens Techno Remix” on YouTube. Makes you wish more Senate debates were available in formats other than C-SPAN and the Congressional Record…