According to a POLITICO review of publicly available polling data, numerous state legislatures are also bottoming out, showing off-the-charts disapproval ratings accompanied by stunning levels of voter cynicism.
It all adds up to a toxic election-year brew for legislators inside and outside Washington.
The freshest example comes from Pennsylvania, where a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday surveyed the attitudes of residents and reported that just 29 percent of Pennsylvania voters said they approved of the job the state legislature is doing in Harrisburg, a slippage of 13 points since last May.
“We have a high unemployment rate, the economic climate is a difficult one, and people are expressing their frustration,” Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican, told POLITICO. “We’ve had a difficulty getting our budget done on time. That put the spotlight on state government.”
In Pennsylvania, it hasn’t helped that the stench of corruption has permeated the statehouse — a legislative corruption scandal known as Bonusgate continues to make headlines.
“It adds to the sense of negativity in the General Assembly,” Pileggi acknowledged.
In neighboring New York, where various state legislators have been embroiled in scandals, a new Marist College poll indicates that just 16 percent of voters believe the state Senate is doing an excellent or good job, while 82 percent rated it as fair or poor.
In the state Assembly, which hasn’t been in the same throes of scandal and chaos as the state Senate, the numbers aren’t much different: 17 percent said the Assembly is doing an excellent or good job, while 80 percent said the job was fair or poor.
“There’s a cavalcade of problems coming out of Albany, huge stalemates, dysfunction and corruption issues,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
Miringoff said while state lawmakers are inevitably linked to the general dissatisfaction with and distrust of the federal government, most of the displeasure in the Empire State has been homegrown. Back-to-back scandals in the governor’s office certainly haven’t helped.
“The big media centers in New York are usually New York City and D.C. You have to really work at it in Albany to punch through, but they have,” said Miringoff. “It’s a real mess out there.”
In neighboring Connecticut, voter unrest also runs deep. According to a mid-January Quinnipiac poll, the approval rating of the state Legislature was at 30 percent — just 1 point above the body's 2003 standing, the lowest ever recorded by the poll — compared with 58 percent who disapprove.
It’s nearly impossible to know how widespread the hostility is, since many states don’t have publicly available survey data on state legislature approval ratings.
But in the places where approval is measured — typically larger states with more professionalized legislatures — the numbers are hair-raising.
In California, state lawmakers are so unpopular that even members of Congress — which is itself registering abysmal approval ratings these days — register more favorable marks.
A December 2009 Public Policy Institute of California survey found that while 51 percent of adults approved of their individual member of Congress, that number dropped to just 30 percent when voters were asked about their state legislator.
When it comes to the California Legislature as a whole, 71 percent said they disapproved.
Experts say that, as fierce and partisan as the battles over health care, Wall Street bailouts and deficit spending have been in Washington, they pale in comparison with the partisan combat over California's $20 billion budget gap.
"One is saying we're going to cut your budget; the other is saying we're going to send some money your way," said Mark Baldassare, president of PPIC, explaining why the numbers are upside down.
"The trend has been more troubling for legislators in that many voters are not just upset with the Legislature in general but [with] the people who represent them in their district," said Baldassare. "It's a function of the bad economy and a very challenging budget environment, [which] are making people feel that their legislators aren't getting the job done.”
The California Field Poll reflects that cynicism. A January survey gave the state Legislature a 16 percent approval rating, up 6 points from the poll's 63-year all-time record low registered in October.
"The numbers we've been getting in the last year and a half are all-time record lows," said the Field Poll's Mark DiCamillo.
DiCamillo said voters in the nation’s most populous state have not witnessed any honest effort by lawmakers to show personal sacrifice before slashing popular programs.
"The voters don't believe they've taken a close enough look at itself: the perks, the per diem, the parking. There doesn't seem to be any major push for these symbolic acts, but they end up cutting public schools, health care and the university budgets," he said. "They could make token gestures that would say to folks, 'We're all in this together,' but I don't see it."
Elsewhere, polls aimed at gauging voter sentiment have also signaled high levels of dissatisfaction with government.
A January Civitas Institute poll in North Carolina found that exactly half of those surveyed believe the average elected official is dishonest. Less than a third thought the state was heading in the right direction.
In Iowa, a mid-February poll published by the Des Moines Register showed that just one-third of Iowans believe the state is on the right track, marking the lowest percentage in at least a decade.
In Rhode Island, less than half of voters have confidence that state government officials will make the right decisions for the state's future, with more than a third saying they have no confidence at all, according to a recent poll by Brown University’s Taubman Center.
The dismal polling doesn’t reveal much about which political party will pay the price in November. And it’s hard to pinpoint how voters will react, since places like California, Connecticut and Rhode Island currently have Republican governors and Democratic legislatures. In Pennsylvania, the governor is a Democrat, while control of the Legislature is divided between the two major parties.
In Rhode Island, the Brown University poll suggests both parties are being held accountable.
When asked, “How much confidence do you have in Democratic state legislators to make the right decisions for the state’s future?” 35 percent answered “None at all.”
When asked the same question about Republican state legislators, the numbers were nearly identical — 36 percent said “None at all.”
Despite the choppy waters this year, Pileggi, the Pennsylvania Senate majority leader, says he remains confident about his GOP colleagues’ prospects this fall — but he doesn’t foresee the chamber’s polling numbers improving.
“Their approval ratings in their individual districts are very high. When you move from general concepts to specifics, then it becomes an evaluation of the effectiveness of that individual,” Pileggi said.
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