Thinking it through
Congressional Democrats -- 25% approve, 70% disapproveOf course, neither are congressional Republicans, which they note, but ignore.
There are, as always with FDM, problems. First the question wasn't approve/disapprove, it was how do you rate the job they're doing, and only 27% said Republicans were doing excellent/pretty good, 69% said fair or poor. It's a small thing, but it matters. If you scroll down the page a bit, you see a Fox poll that asks about approval, and it winds up tied at around 33-34. A Pew tracking poll gives comparable results when it asks about approval.
The second problem is, Congress isn't that popular, either. Since Democrats aren't in power, that doesn't fall on their shoulders, but on the party in power. This is something we call accountability: voters hold the party in power accountable for its mistakes.
There are two ways you could get the results in the Harris poll cited above. One possibility is that voters said "Congress sucks, and I don't care whose fault it is." In which case, the elections of 2006 will be about showing how incumbent Democrats were fighting to make Congress better, while Republicans will have to defend the status quo, a status quo that will include the DeLay trial and the Libby trial, both shining lights on Republican failures.
A second possibility is that people think Democrats are doing a poor job because they aren't running things, that is, if they were doing what they wanted, rather than stuck trying to slow the roll of the Republicans, they'd be doing well.
Clearly, Democrats need to present a positive agenda, and it's encouraging to see groups like Heartland Democrats of America and individual citizens as well as public officials all working to put that agenda out there.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the two possibilities are actually testable.
How? By asking people who they plan to vote for. As Chris Bowers shows, Democratic voters tend to be united in their intent to vote Democratic, but tend to give their leaders low approval ratings. That means there are a bunch of people saying "fair" or "poor" on the Harris poll who are committed to voting for a Democrat. The same dynamic does not exist on the other side.
At some point I'll write more about why you'd see this asymmetry, but I'll give you a hint: it isn't because the Democratic party has moved to the left.
I want to close by emphasizing a point that's obvious to me, but that some conservatives seem to be missing. A very unpopular Congress is one that's likely to hurt incumbents. That means that the majority party is likely to lose more seats than the minority party (speaking purely probabilistically).
Add in Republican weakness in the generic ballot, and you have to think that things look good for Democrats.