What if They Held an Election and Nobody Came?

The interesting story about the new Associated Press-Ipsos poll is not the further decline in approval ratings for President Bush and the Republican Congress. The interesting story is how the decline is being driven by discontent among self-identified conservative voters.

Bush’s disapproval rating among conservatives is 45%. That is not as high as the overall 66% disapproval score, but it is quite remarkable considering Bush is supposed to be—according to the media—the most conservative president since Ronald Reagan. Even more stunning is the whopping 65% negative score among polled conservatives for the Republican Congress. Close to a third of conservatives surveyed would be happier if the GOP lost control of Congress.

There are many reasons for the low poll numbers. But one of the primary drivers of conservative discontent with the GOP has got to be that the Republican Congress and President Bush are the biggest spenders since LBJ.

The AP-Ipsos results seem to corroborate what other pollsters have discovered among likely voters over the past two years. In February 2006, a George Washington University Battleground poll revealed that only 36% percent of those surveyed trusted Republicans in Congress to keep spending under control—down from 47% in the same poll two years before. This isn’t because Democrats have effectively wrapped themselves in the mantle of fiscal responsibility. It’s entirely a result of the public realizing that the GOP is no longer a party committed to small government.

As a result of this, many Republicans might shift from being “likely voters” in November to deciding they’d rather not put up with the fuss of showing up to vote at all. And that’s exactly what has Republican strategists worried. Why would conservatives bother to pull the lever for a Republican candidate when continued GOP control of Congress seems likely only to give them the sort of Big Government they would expect from Democrats? That’s not what Republican leaders want to hear from their base before a mid-term (read: low turnout) congressional election in which support of the party faithful is essential to victory.

Pundits suggest that the poll numbers of late are a harbinger of a 1994-like realignment in Congress. It’s probably too early to make such grand predictions. Perhaps a better historical comparison is with the 1998 congressional elections.

At that time, Republicans were coming off of a year when they seemed to have made peace with Big Government. A few weeks before the midterm elections of 1998, the Republican Congress approved a budget that hiked non-defense discretionary spending by over 5% that year—low by comparison to today’s budgets, but over twice what was promised in the Contract with America budget. They also funded a record amount of pork-barrel projects, reversed their promise to phase-out farm subsidies, and passed a highway bill that at the time was the most expensive and earmark-laden in U.S. history. In other words, the 1998 session of Congress was in every way a rout of the very ideals that sparked the Republican Revolution in the first place.

What was the result? The GOP lost a net three seats in the House, narrowing their majority to five seats. Exit polls showed that turnout among self-identified conservatives dropped 6% from 1994 to 1998. This may not sound like a lot, but consider this: Republican House candidates received a total of 32 million votes, and Democratic candidates received 31 million votes—a difference of about 2%. In a race that close, Republicans needed all the help that could be mustered from self-identified conservatives. But those voters were clearly peeved that Republicans had lost their fiscal backbone and decided to stay home on Election Day.

Whether 2006 will be a replay of 1998 or even 1994 will at least partly depend on whether Republicans can dispel their reputations as big spenders.