Not all unpopularity is equal

Chris Cillizza claims that as November nears, voters are turning their backs on both parties. The claim is a bit odd. Polling suggests that, while Democratic Senate and House seats are about to shift en masse to Republicans, there’s a good chance that Republicans won’t lose a single Senate seat and will lose fewer than half a dozen in the House.
Cillizza relies on polls showing that the approval rating for congressional Republicans – somewhere between 20 and 31 percent, depending on the poll – is lower than that of congressional Democrats – somewhere between 30 and 38 percent. But viewing a party’s representatives unfavorably is not the same thing as turning one’s back on that party in an election.
By and large, the choice most voters face this year is between a Democrat and a Republican. This makes it difficult to turn one’s back on both parties on election day. To be sure, voters have the option of staying home. But polling suggests that it is only Democratic voters who intend to exercise this option on a large scale.
But why are voters tilting so far in the direction of the Republicans when they approve so little of Republicans in Congress? For one thing, as Cillizza notes, the Democrats are in power. This election, like most, will very likely be a referendum on the party in power.
For another thing, the low Republican numbers probably reflect the disapproval of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans (who tend to see Republican members of Congress as part of the problem). By contrast, the low Democratic numbers probably tend to reflect the disapproval of only Independents and Republicans.
But Republicans disapprove vastly more of Democratic members of Congress than they do of their counterparts in the GOP. And Independents by-and-large disapprove somewhat more of Democratic members than they do of Republicans.
Thus, the claim of some operatives quoted by Cillizza that the unpopularity of the Republican brand will save the Democrats from a 1994-style trouncing is not very persuasive at this point.

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