PHOENIX — A new poll suggests that Arizona voters insist they're mad as hell and are ready to throw the current crop of bums out of Congress. But it remains to be seen whether the anger at government dysfunction carries through to next year's general election — and whether voters find the alternatives they are offered are any better.
If the raw results of the Behavior Research Center are to be believed, more than half of those questioned say they will vote for someone else next year than the person who is currently representing them. And the figure approaches two thirds when measuring only those who actually are registered to vote.
Pollster Earl de Berge said he recognizes that questions about Congress generally tend to provoke negative reactions, but he pointed out this survey specifically asks voters about returning their own representatives to Washington.
Potentially more significant is the size of the dissatisfaction.
“We have never seen numbers like this where the willingness to vote for incumbents was so incredibly low,” de Berge said.
The top officials from both major parties acknowledged the vast level of dissatisfaction among Arizonans, though they have different spins on the reason. But they also point out that the survey simply asks an academic question of the incumbent versus an unknown.
“We don't even know what the field is going to look like,” said Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham.
“I definitely think you've got more of that anti-incumbent sentiment this cycle than usual,” said D.J. Quinlan, his Democrat counterpart.
“But at the end of the day, folks have to make a decision — but usually between two individuals,” Quinlan said.
He said if voters don't see anything they like in the challenger, that anti-incumbency sentiment won't mean much at all.
Even de Berge acknowledges that point, but he said the current state of dissatisfaction with incumbents could give almost any challenger an immediate boost.
He pointed out that just 27 percent of those questioned believe the country is headed for a better future in this century. That same question, asked in 1999, found 50 percent feeling positive about the direction of the country.
“Those are almost sea changes in what we've seen in public attitude,” de Berge said. “I doubt that we've ever seen anything like 51 percent thinking the country's headed downhill.”
Timing may have something to do with all this: The survey was conducted during the federal shutdown, with members of both parties each blaming the other for the inability to craft a new budget and deal with the debt ceiling.
Some of the question of whether voters will turn incumbents out of office will be decided next August during partisan primaries.
Per de Berge, it could depend on whether there are Republican challengers who may be more politically moderate than GOP incumbents who are seen as Tea Party supporters.
“If the voters don't have a choice, then all bets are off as to whether or not people are dissatisfied with their party,” he said. And that, said de Berge, could result in some party regulars opting not to back the ticket.
Graham said he is anticipating there will be primary challenges within the GOP.
“And some of it will be very heated,” he said.
But Graham insisted that once there is a nominee — whether incumbent or challenger — the party faithful will unite behind that person.
Quinlan said the survey shows broad-based dissatisfaction with Congress from all quarters.
“It's definitely warranted when you look at the dysfunction in Congress,” he said, citing the shutdown and near-default on the national debt.
“It's a ‘pox on everybody's house,’” Quinlan said. “Americans just want government that works.”
Graham agreed — to a point.
“People are just sick and tired of the federal government and the political gaming that's been going on,” he said.
But Graham said he believes voters will blame that “gaming” on Democrats and the Obama administration. More to the point, he does not think voters will take out their frustration about the government shutdown on Republicans who refused to vote for the budget because they were trying to delay or kill the Affordable Care Act.
“There's two sides in a game, right?” he said. “I think people understood the strategy, so there was patience there.”
Quinlan, not surprisingly, hopes voters can be convinced that Republicans — and in particular the no-compromise elements of the GOP's Tea Party wing — are to blame for the shutdown.
That is key if Democrats hope to retain the three “swing” congressional seats they won in 2012, and Quinlan took pains to point out how Ann Kirkpatrick, Kyrsten Sinema and Ron Barber have made efforts to work across party lines, saying that's what the poll shows voters want.