Note to aspiring politicians: Fiery invectives and self-serving media stunts won't work in this year's midterm elections. Anger has run its course. Americans want competent, not controversial elected officials. The winning style and tone in 2014 will be more Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse than Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Drama is so 2013.
A public opinion poll released today by Gallup confirms this, as a record-high number of Americans (42 percent) now identify as "political independents." Disgusted by the partisan vindictiveness and disillusioned with Washington's ability to do anything, Americans are exhausted from holding pitchforks above their heads for the last decade. They're done.
And while Democrats may be relieved to learn that their party maintains "a six-point edge in party identification when independents' partisan leanings are taken into account," they should not dismiss the fact that the total percentage is lower now (47 percent) than in either of the recent midterm years in which they gained seats in Congress (48 percent in 1998; 50 percent in 2006). Further, as analysts (1, 2, and 3) have noted, President Obama's low approval rating and six-year office tenure do not suggest Democrats will have an advantage come November.
Yet despite the fact that many Americans are opting out of the parties, the majority don't plan on sitting out the elections. According to a Pew Research survey, "about half of the public (51 percent) is especially looking forward to November's congressional elections." This overall percentage is not only about the same "as it was in January 2010 (50 percent)," but the partisan differences in enthusiasm are running even as well. Pew notes: "Currently, 63 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats say they are anticipating the midterm elections; a similar gap was evident four years ago (60 percent of Republicans vs. 48 percent of Democrats)."
The "generic ballot" results from a CNN/ORC International poll provide additional evidence suggesting that Democrats are playing defense this time around. No wonder Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer turned down the opportunity to run for Senate and is instead eyeing a 2016 presidential run.
In other words, Republicans are not "running scared." Instead, they're surprisingly being smart. They're dialing down their obstructionism and touting their ability to cooperate on the work of governing. Of course, they're surely hoping that this will keep the media focus on the implementation (and the multi-faceted failures) of the Affordable Care Act.
They're also hoping that the "bargaining" Americans engage in now that they've moved beyond anger sounds something like the businessman from Pittsburgh who told Salena Zito, a Tribune-Review columnist, "If everyone like him had voted in 2012, how differently might 2013 have turned out?" Again, notice his tone. He's not wrathful, but regretful. Pained and concerned, he wants it to be different.
Politicians have an enormous task this election cycle. They must win back the one thing that both of the major parties have spent the last dozen years destroying: trust. The good news is that candidates who present themselves as hard-working, heartfelt truth-tellers are likely to find a receptive audience. Lots of turtle steps. Slow and steady wins the race.