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11 poll results that explain the midterms

Win McNamee / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The midterm elections are happening this Tuesday, and Senate control, all House seats, most governorships, and many local positions are up for grabs. But recently, there's been an odd paradox in public opinion — people are both furious with the way things are going in Washington and bored by an election which offers their best hope of change.

Here are 11 recent poll results that explain the strange mix of anger and alienation the American people are bringing to the 2014 election.

1) Independents and Republicans agree: the economy stinks

Economy poll

Lately, the unemployment rate has been falling, GDP growth has been good, and stocks are doing well overall. But there are other economic indicators, like personal income growth and long-term unemployment, that suggest we're still a long way from recovery.

A recent poll of registered voters by CNN/ORC International found that most people still say the economy is doing poorly. Bu the answers have a partisan skew, with Democrats more likely to say things are going well, and independents' views mirroring the more negative views of Republicans. And if independents are unhappy with the way things are going, they tend to blame the party in the White House for it.

2) Congress is staggeringly unpopular

Congress unpopular

It's clear to practically everyone that the current Congress is incredibly dysfunctional. And 40 years of Gallup polling makes clear that, in the eyes of the public, Congress is historically bad. Indeed, practically anything polled manages to get a higher approval than our legislative branch. That includes traffic jams, lice, and Nickelback.

3) But many people don't even know who's in charge of each chamber

People don't know who runs Congress

With Congress's approval ratings so bad, one might expect a general "throw the bums out" response from the public, hurting incumbents of both parties equally. This poll from Pew shows why that might not be happening — people don't even know who's in charge.

Specifically, fewer than half of respondents correctly said the Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans control the House. This is one reason why the president's party tends to get more of the blame when things aren't going well. Everyone knows President Obama's in charge, and most people conclude the buck stops with him.

4) Which is the greater threat to the US, ISIS or Ebola?

ISIS Ebola poll

Okay, so this poll is pretty silly, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp wrote recently. But it gets at the frenzy of fear that's dominated news coverage in these crucial last two months before the election.

Very few people will cast their votes solely because of either issue. But GOP candidates have been hammering Democratic incumbents on Ebola and ISIS in elections from New Hampshire to Minnesota. These issues feed the sense that things aren't going well right now, that the people in charge could be doing a better job — and that it's time for a change.

5) The GOP's advantage on major issues looks similar to 2010

GOP issues pew

The 2010 midterms were a huge success for Republicans, pretty much across the board. They retook the House, picked up six Senate seats, and won governor's mansions and state legislatures all over the country.

Unfortunately for Democrats, polling of the public's views on many major issues looks quite similar to how it looked that year, according to Pew. After a surge for Democrats on several of these in 2012, the GOP has regained the edge on key economic issues as well as security and foreign policy issues.

6) But lots of voters still have negative views of the Republican Party

GOP Brand pew

One silver lining for Democrats is that the Republican Party's brand is still pretty bad. Indeed, in the same Pew poll that gave the GOP an edge on key issues, respondents are far more likely to think Democrats care about people like them, are more willing to work with the other party, and govern more honestly and ethically. However, when it comes to who can manage the federal government better, the Democrats have suffered — the GOP has a three point edge on that question.

7) Obama is more unpopular in the key states with Senate races

Obama approval swing Senate states

Nationally, Obama's approval ratings aren't great. The latest HuffPostPollster trendline shows his disapproval ratings 10 percentage points higher than his approval ratings. But in the 12 Senate states with the closest races — which include deep red states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska as well as purple states like Iowa and Colorado — he's even more unpopular, as the above poll by NPR shows. So, in their attempts to keep the Senate, Democrats started out on defense.

8) And polarization among voters makes it tougher for moderate politicians to survive

Pew Polarization

This year, Democrats are defending several Senate seats in deeply conservative states. The traditional way for candidates like that to win elections is to distance themselves from their parties by building centrist reputations, focusing on their personal connections to their state, and emphasizing their interest in working across the aisle. All this is aimed at winning voters in "the middle."

But, as this chart from a Pew study on polarization shows, that middle is shrinking, and the two parties are increasingly far apart from each other. That's made it harder for Democrats in conservative states to distinguish themselves from their national party.

9) Democratic-leaning demographic groups are less likely to turn out in the midterms

Voter turnout poll

It's well-known that Democratic-leaning demographic groups — particularly young and nonwhite voters — are less likely to turn out in midterm elections, compared to presidential ones. This is illustrated by a recent poll from the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, which shows that Hispanic registered voters are far less likely to follow the election or turn out, compared to the electorate as a whole.

And these numbers are probably rather high — actual voter turnout in the midterms tends to be around 40 percent of the voting-eligible population, which is much lower than the share of people saying they'll certainly vote in this poll.

10) This year, young voters likely to turn out prefer Republicans

Young voters IOP poll

The demographic differential turnout in the midterms isn't the only problem for Democrats. This week, Harvard's Institute of Politics released its fall survey of voters aged 18-29. Overall, young voters' preferences as to who will control Congress have barely shifted. But this chart looks only at those who say they're "definitely" going to vote. And that group looks quite different — and much more Republican leaning — than even in the GOP midterm wave year of 2010.

11) Americans have lost interest as the election has gotten closer

WSJ poll midterms

The public may be very dissatisfied, but that dissatisfaction hasn't led to greater interest in the campaigns. Most of the time, as Election Day gets closer, the public tends to get more and more interested — but not this year. According to Wall Street Journal / NBC News polling, the share of people who express high interest in the election has actually declined between June and October. Pollster Bill McInturff said this lack of interest was "something you haven't seen before in a generation."

But, as my colleague Matt Yglesias wrote, that's the wrong response. States containing the vast majority of the US population will vote on governors this fall. Beyond that, there are many local races that, together, are really quite important in affecting people's lives. These elections matter — and if you stay at home, you might not like the results.

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