I'm always amused by national news polls showing that few Americans like the job Republicans are doing in Congress, as if this is somehow a precursor to the outcome of the 2012 House and Senate elections.
In fact, at this stage it's largely irrelevant to how the congressional elections will turn out. Most election analysts believe the Republicans will hold on to the House, and the chances are strong that they could take control of the Senate, too. But more on that later.
Congress' approval ratings have long been historically low as an institution, and this two-year election cycle is no different. Polls show voters strongly disapproving of the job either party is doing.
Ask typical Americans what they think of Congress, and you will get a big fat vote of disgust with their performance. But ask what they think of their own representative or senators, and the answer is more divided, with a majority often favoring incumbents.
This week, Gallup released its latest polling numbers, reinforcing this conflicting axiom of American politics. "A record-low 21 percent of registered voters say most members of Congress deserve re-election, the lowest percentage Gallup has found in the 20-year history of asking this question," the venerable polling group said.
But that finding "compares with 54 percent of voters saying their own member deserves re-election."
As the country was heading into the fall election season in 2010, polls showed that the voters didn't like the job either party was doing. The Democrats had huge majorities in both houses of Congress and were spending money like there was no tomorrow, driving the U.S. deeper into debt, passing an unpopular government-run health care plan, and watching the economy sink deeper into the abyss.
On Sept. 8, 2010, a Gallup poll reported that the Democrats' approval ratings had sunk to 33 percent, while the GOP's score card was an equally dismal 32 percent.
"Both parties' ratings are on the low end of what Gallup has measured since the question was first asked in 1999," the pollsters said at the time.
About two months later, however, the Republicans took control of the Democrat-run House by a wide margin and also cut deeply into the Democrats' Senate majority.
Whatever voters had previously thought of the Republicans in a generic sense, when it came right down to the issues that they cared about -- the economy, jobs, and unprecedented deficits and debt -- they voted overwhelmingly for the GOP's message.
A Washington Post poll said this week that 40 percent of Americans side with President Obama and another 40 percent side with the Republicans on jobs. There were "similarly even splits on the economy generally and the deficit."
That means that next year's elections, barring any mind-changing improvement in the economy, will probably turn on swing voters and independents who deserted the Democrats in droves last year.
Independent voters are especially critical of Congress, with 14 percent saying most members deserve re-election, compared with 24 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of Democrats who say that, Gallup says.
It may be a little premature to make any hard and fast predictions about the outcome of the House and Senate contests next year, but a few top election analysts are doing just that.
The emerging consensus now seems to be that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be the minority leader after the 2012 election.
"Right now, they're (the Republicans) favored to take control of the Senate, but it's not a done deal yet," says Jennifer Duffy, the Senate elections analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
The Senate's lopsided math clearly favors Republicans next year. There are 33 Senate seats at stake, with 23 held by Democrats and just 10 by Republicans, and all but two of those are considered safe for the GOP.
But nearly a dozen Senate races will be very competitive, and almost all of those seats are held by Democrats. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Montana's Jon Tester, who squeaked into office in 2006 with just 49 percent of the vote, are among the most vulnerable, according to both the Cook analysis and the Rothenberg Political Report, which also tracks the races.
At the same time, there are six open seats being vacated by retiring Democrats, including one in rock-ribbed, conservative North Dakota that will likely switch to the GOP column. Three others are now rated "toss-ups."
Thus, at least nine Democrat seats are threatened, and the Republicans will need to pick up only four of them to take control of the Senate.
Could the Democrats win back the House? Right now that seems extremely remote for several reasons. Congressional redistricting favors the Republicans in a number of states.
An unpopular president at the top of the ballot makes the election an even tougher sell for the Democrats, some of whom are already distancing themselves from him. Throw in an economy that's expected to remain weak next year and a dispirited Democratic Party that has been losing independents, and the chances of putting Nancy Pelosi back in charge of the House are highly unlikely.