POLITICS: Campaigns

Prediction: Major voter turnout for midterm elections

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,2014 Elections,Campaigns,Becket Adams

Congress' approval is at an all-time low, the inevitable result of years of partisan bickering and mismanagement, and this will likely result in higher voter turnout for this year's midterm elections, according to Gallup.

"In the last five midterm elections, voter turnout has exceeded 40 percent when Congress' approval rating was low, but turnout was below 40 percent when Americans were more approving," the polling firm reported.

The survey, which was conducted from Aug. 7-10 and sampled 1,032 U.S. adults aged 18 and older, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Congress' approval rating currently rests at about 13 percent, according to Gallup, and it's unlikely that this will see any drastic improvement prior to the midterm elections. In fact, Congress is on track to have the lowest approval rating for any midterm election year since Gallup started tracking this measure back in the 1970s.

In short, we could see an impressive turnout in November, which could also mean the end of certain vulnerable lawmakers in both the House and the Senate.

"[A] near-record-low 19 percent of registered voters say most members of Congress deserve re-election. This latter measure shows a similarly strong relationship to voter turnout as does job approval," Gallup noted.

"Voter turnout in midterm elections has ranged narrowly between 38.1 percent and 41.1 percent since 1994, considerably lower than the 51.7 percent to 61.6 percent range for the last five presidential elections. But there has been a clear pattern of turnout being on the higher end of the midterm year range when Americans were less approving of Congress. The correlation between turnout and congressional approval since 1994 is -.83, indicating a strong relationship," the report added.

Curiously, the link between Congress' approval rating and voter turnout is a reliability new phenomenon.

"From 1974 — the first year Gallup measured congressional job approval — until 1990, there was only a weak relationship between turnout and approval, with turnout higher when approval was higher, the opposite of the current pattern," the report notes. "But that weak relationship was driven mostly by the 1974 midterm elections, when turnout was among the higher ones for midterms and Congress was relatively popular after the Watergate hearings that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation that summer."

One takeaway from the data, which shows Congress has traded hands several times in recent years, is that Americans appear to believe more and more that their vote makes a difference. That is, after breaking the Democratic Party's nearly 40-year stranglehold on the House of Representatives in 1994, voters have been more proactive about flushing Congress of lawmakers who fail to live up to the oaths of their offices.

"Since 1994, voters may have a greater belief that they can change the federal government and its policies by their choices of members of Congress in midterm elections. That belief in turn may help drive up turnout when voters feel a change is needed," Gallup reported.

"Voters likely feel a change in government is needed this year, given their historically low congressional approval ratings. Past patterns suggest this should lead to above-average turnout in the midterm elections this November. But there may be less consensus this year on what that change should be, given the divided control of Congress. In some recent elections, one party was clearly vulnerable to voters' wrath when they were upset with Congress because that party had control of the presidency and both houses," the report added.

However, an important note of caution: If voters think that little will be changed after November — that is, if it appears that political gridlock will continue to reign supreme in Washington even after the midterms — voter turnout may be far less than expected. And why not? What's the point of voting for change if everything stays the same?

"However, if voters have designs on changing the government and see a good chance that they can do so — perhaps by voting against incumbents of both parties — then turnout may rise, as in similar past elections," Gallup suggested.

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