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Why Democrats Can't Count on Voters Blaming a 'Republican Congress'

When voters are unhappy, they are much more likely to take out their anger on the sitting president than on Congress, Rothenberg writes. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Most emails I receive are fundraising propaganda easily ignored, since they aren’t strong on accuracy or thoughtfulness. Instead, they merely seek to incite and anger — and to get people to open their checkbooks to stop the forces of evil.  

But the Monday email I received from the Progressive Majority Action Fund, which defines itself as a “nonprofit advocacy group that helps turn grassroots activists into progressive champions,” wasn’t like that. It was a “messaging” memo to ask friends, and apparently journalists, to use the words “Republican Congress” each and every time they refer to Congress. Messaging, of course, is the life blood of politics, so it’s understandable activists on the left and the right battle over words and terms. I certainly don’t have a problem with that, or with the group’s particular effort.  

But the group argued in its memo that Democrats lost in 2014 because even though voters “loathed” the House and Senate, they “had no idea which party was responsible for congressional dysfunction.”  

“Swing voters had no idea which candidates to hold responsible for congressional failure,” continued the memo, which seeks to change that.  

There is more messaging in the memo — including assertions this will be the worst Congress in memory and Republicans always side with the rich “against the rest of us” — and you can take it or leave that messaging if you want. But you should not accept the premise of the memo, which is that President Barack Obama was not a factor in the midterm balloting.  

In fact, although the memo mentions the president once, and only then in the context of Republicans obstructing action on Capitol Hill, he was by far the single biggest factor in the elections' outcome. Voters held Obama responsible because that’s how voters see midterm elections.  

Yes, it’s true some voters were simply unhappy with where the country was (and is) headed, and yes, many had (and have) a low opinion of Congress. But when voters are unhappy, they are much more likely to take out their anger on the sitting president than on Congress.  

The House re-election rate was approximately 95 percent again last cycle, even with Congress’s poor job approval ratings, confirming the obvious conclusion that voters may despise the institution without holding that against their own member of Congress.  

If you aren’t yet convinced, take a look at 2008, when voters were also miserable. President George W. Bush’s job ratings were terrible (27 percent approve/66 percent disapprove in the last pre-election NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey ), but Congress’s were worse (12 percent approve/79 percent disapprove). That was a Congress with Democratic majorities in both houses, and yet when voters went to the polls, they were thinking about Bush and comparing the 2008 presidential nominees, not regarding the election as a referendum on Congress or the Democrats.  

Although Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, Bush and his party remained as the representatives of the status-quo, while Democrats represented change. So voters voted against Republicans up and down the ballot.  

There is nothing wrong with the Progressive Majority Action Fund trying to link the GOP to Congress. In the near term, it could make for an interesting talking point, at least on those television programs and websites that cater to liberals. But remember, while the Republican brand has been quite damaged for years now, that didn’t stop the party from winning the Senate and from building up a remarkable House majority.  

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