There are lots of ways to look at public-opinion polls, all of them flawed. Almost no topic stuffed with numbers is so stuffed with ambiguity, so ripe for overinterpretation, so vulnerable to bias. The act of examining poll numbers is neither art nor science. It is something less than each of those.
So I warned you. What we're about to do is not the equivalent of painting Gothic cathedrals at dawn and dusk nor measuring the astrophysical redshift (though in this case, we're talking about a blue shift). But here's the way I see one recent poll: To my eye, it shows that the public thinks even less of the current Congress than it did of the Congresses that impeached and tried President Clinton.
Yes, that's a logical leap. Yes, that's an interpretation. Yes, that means that this autumn's midterm congressional elections are more important than any since 1994, the year Newt Gingrich and his Republican rebels turned the Washington world upside down, took control of both houses of Congress, and put the Democrats on the defensive and in the minority for the first time in four decades.
This is a column built around how the other half thinks.
Here's why I'm saying that (and why poll interpretation is risky business): The latest Pew Research Center survey says that about half the public (47 percent) believes Congress has accomplished about the same amount as it usually accomplishes. That's pretty much in sync with earlier poll findings. But what struck me was how the other half responded to the poll question - and when you examine these poll findings, we are examining the distribution of the remaining 50 or so percentage points.
In October, 1998, 24 percent said Congress accomplished more than usual and 23 percent said less than usual. This April, 7 percent said the Congress accomplished more than usual - and 41 percent said it had accomplished less than usual.
You don't have to be a statistician to see something important here. These figures show real discontent with Congress, and when voters punish Congress they often punish the people and party who run Congress, which in this case is the Republicans. This comes at a time when President Bush's favorability ratings are at an all-time low.
Then there is this to throw into the mix: The portion of the electorate that views this autumn's midterm elections as a chance to vote against the President is twice as big as the slice that sees the congressional contests as a chance to vote for Mr. Bush.
This can mean a lot of things, of course. It doesn't necessarily mean that - though this is the Democrats' fondest hope - the 2006 elections will be the Democrats' equivalent of the 1994 elections, the occasion for a dramatic change in power relationships on Capitol Hill. But it means that enough people are looking at the fall's midterm elections as a referendum on the President that some of those contests could in fact be decided on national rather than local matters.
That is not the usual case with congressional elections. Parties try to nationalize these elections but voters frequently refuse to take the bait. Often, for example, voters dislike Congress in general but like their own representative. That surely is the case now, when, by a 2-to-1 margin, members of the public indicated that they would like to see their own representative returned to office. But - and who knows right now whether this is relevant, but I have a hunch it might be - the margin only four years ago was 3-to-1. That's a big shift, a potential blue shift.
What are the unknowns? Lots of them. We don't know for sure, for example, whether the discontented are clustered in some discrete congressional districts, where they would be a potent force, or spread out relatively evenly across the nation, where their influence would be diluted. We don't know, in areas where the disaffected are clustered, whether the incumbents are Democrats or Republicans or what the party affiliation rates are. We don't know, in areas where the incumbents are Republicans, whether the Democrats have strong challengers signed up for ballot positions. We don't know whether the public is furious or just merely fed up.
We don't know one other important element of this calculus as well. We don't know whether the feeling is broadly anti-incumbent or broadly anti-Republican.
There is some overlap, of course, as the Republicans control Congress and thus are more likely to be incumbents than are Democrats. Though 40 percent have a favorable opinion of the GOP - not an impressive figure, and in fact the lowest favorability marks for the party in more than a dozen years - the favorability marks for the Democrats (47 percent) aren't exactly ringing the bells at the Netherlands Carillon across the Potomac either.
Where does that leave us? The Democrats will probably try to make the war in Iraq, the President's credibility on weapons of mass destruction, and high gas prices the issue in November. The Republicans are likely to emphasize that congressional elections are merely 435 individual contests without a theme, even as they slip talk about the strong economy into the conversation at every possible opportunity.
Right now (considering the Vermont independents as Democrats for the purpose of this conversation), the Republicans have a 29-seat bulge in the House and a 10-seat bulge in the Senate. That is, to be sure, a fair amount of ground to make up. But it's not out of the question that we could look back in the fall and say that the groundwork for revolution on Capitol Hill had been prepared by the spring.