Poll Signals More Republican Woes
Disapproval of Congress Grows
JACKIE CALMES & JOHN HARWOOD
Wall Street Journal 19oct2006
[More on Bush]
Respondents in a
poll of 1,006 registered
WASHINGTON — With just 19 days until the midterm elections, a new poll shows both President Bush and his party in worse shape among voters than Democrats were in the October before they lost control of Capitol Hill a dozen years ago.
Support for the Republican-led Congress has eroded to its lowest point since the party's watershed 1994 victory that brought it House and Senate majorities.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll illustrates the political toll Republicans are paying for rising discontent over the Iraq war, as well as a spate of scandals including the disclosure that Republican House leaders knew of inappropriate emails to House pages from Florida Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned late last month. Voters' approval of Congress has fallen to 16% from 20% since early September, while their disapproval has risen to 75% from 65%.
That 16% rating statistically matches Congress's lowest point in the 17 years the Journal and NBC have polled, set in April 1992 when Democrats were in control and suffering from a scandal involving lawmakers' overdrafts from the House bank. The latest results set other records for the Journal/NBC surveys, all ominous for Republicans — "a harbinger," in the words of Journal/NBC pollster Peter Hart, "of what's ahead for the incumbent party. It's as simple as that."
By 52% to 37%, voters say they want Democrats rather than Republicans to control Congress. That 15-point advantage is the widest ever registered by either party in the Journal/NBC surveys. Also, the result marks the first time voter preference for one party has exceeded 50%.
Half of independents say they want Democrats to take charge, while only a quarter of them back Republicans. "It's very unusual to see a majority of independents pick one political party," notes Bill McInturff, the Republican pollster who conducts the surveys with Mr. Hart, his Democratic counterpart.
Two-thirds of the electorate rates this year's Congress "below average" or "one of the worst" — the poorest showing on that question since it was first asked in 1990.
Mr. Bush, who in the past typically drew high ratings personally even when his job-approval scores sagged, now is viewed negatively by a 52% majority — essentially tying the worst rating of his presidency.
As for the Republican Party, 32% of voters rate it positively but 49% negatively — the highest negative ever in the surveys for either party. On the other hand, the Democratic Party's reputation improved. After months in which it had a net negative rating only slightly better than Republicans', the party now is viewed positively by 37% and negatively by 35%.
Along with other findings favorable to Democrats, Messrs. Hart and McInturff see a potential turning point for the party. For months, the Republican pollster has espoused "McInturff's Thesis: If there's a decisive election, it's because the other party becomes a credible alternative." Until now, he has argued, voters' doubts about Democrats were standing in the way of the party making significant gains. But yesterday, the Republican pollster agreed with Mr. Hart that voters now see Democrats as at least "a marginally acceptable alternative."
The Journal/NBC telephone survey of 1,006 registered voters, conducted Oct. 13-16, carries a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points.
To be sure, the poll isn't a forecast of what ultimately happens on Nov. 7. Polls amount to a snapshot in time, and unforeseen events could change the dynamic — though the latest results do follow a trend of steady deterioration in support for Mr. Bush and the Republican-led Congress since just after the president's re-election in 2004.
Oct. May 2006 2002 Telling the truth 16% 21% Hiding something 53% 65% Mostly lying 28% 8% Not sure 3% 6%
Source: The New
York Times / CBS News
Despite the steady drumbeat of ever-worsening polls, Republican leaders say they are counting on their superior get-out-the-vote operation and financial advantage to salvage enough seats to maintain control of the Senate, if not the House.
With the prospects of a Democratic takeover becoming more real to voters, Republicans have begun rallying their demoralized base and fence-sitters with visions of tax increases, liberal social policies and weakness on national security if the opposition controls Congress. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, yesterday sent an email to the media suggesting House Democrats would "plot to establish a Department of Peace, raise your taxes and minimize penalties for crack dealers."
Republicans also have sought to take credit, so far elusive, for recent good economic news, a significant drop in gasoline prices from summer's peaks and a rising stock market. The new poll did show a slight uptick in voters' views of Mr. Bush's handling of the economy: Approval rose to 44% from 39% in June. Still, a 52% majority says it disapproves of his economic stewardship.
One solace for Republican incumbents: National polls are decidedly imperfect predictors of local election outcomes, particularly given voters' historic penchant for saying they loathe Congress but like their own representative. While only 16% of voters approve of Congress, more than twice that many — 39% — said in answer to another poll question that their own representative deserves to be re-elected.
But 45% say "it is time to give a new person a chance." And by other measures in the poll, Republicans are at a greater disadvantage heading toward Election Day than Democrats were 12 years ago just before voters ended their 40-year reign in Congress.
In October 1994, with the public fed up with scandals and the failure of President Clinton and his party's lawmakers to deliver in key areas such as health care, voters said by a nine-point margin — 46% to 37% — that they wanted Republicans to take control. That compares with the 15-point margin today in favor of Democrats' taking the reins.
This midterm, like 1994, is shaping up as a referendum on an unpopular president who isn't on the ballot, leaving his party to bear the brunt of voters' wrath. Mr. Bush, however, is even less popular than Mr. Clinton was as Election Day approached. Back then, 45% disapproved of Mr. Clinton's job performance, compared with Mr. Bush's 57% disapproval rating.
The new poll also suggests the advantages that have helped Republicans sustain their majority in Congress — gerrymandered House districts, a well-oiled turnout machine and the national-security issue — all have been somewhat neutralized by the political winds buffeting the party. Democrats need to gain a net 15 seats for a House majority, and they now have polls showing leads in about 40 Republican-held districts from New England through the Mountain West — with none of their own in serious jeopardy.
Republican spending records indicate greatly diminished hopes of unseating Democratic incumbents in Ohio, West Virginia, South Carolina and Texas, while some of their own incumbents once thought safe, such as Rep. Gil Gutknecht in Minnesota, are now in Democrats' sights. Republican Rep. Curt Weldon, already fighting for his political life in Pennsylvania, now is the subject of a Federal Bureau of Investigation corruption probe.
As for the Senate, the six seats Democrats need for a 51-seat majority no longer are thought to be out of reach, strategists in both parties agree. Pulling it off will mean some fairly dramatic in-roads into Republican territory: defeating red-state incumbents, Sens. George Allen of Virginia and Jon Kyl of Arizona, or having Tennessee voters make Democratic Rep. Harold Ford the first African-American elected statewide there.
Democratic rank-and-file voters continue to appear significantly more eager to show up on Election Day, a sign that Republicans' get-out-the-vote efforts may not provide the political insurance they are banking on. Some 60% of Democratic voters express the highest possible level of interest in the election, compared with 48% of Republicans. Similarly, 53% of Democrats call themselves more enthusiastic than in the past about voting, compared with 38% of Republicans.
Mr. McInturff recalled that Republicans enjoyed a similar double-digit edge in voter enthusiasm prior to the 1994 election, when Democrats were the demoralized party. But this year, Republicans are disillusioned by huge federal spending, scandals, illegal immigration and Congress's inaction on a raft of issues.
According to the poll, the electorate overall embraces the idea of breaking up the Republican Party's six-year hold on power in both the legislative and executive branches. By 48% to 26%, voters call Republican control of the White House, House and Senate "a bad thing." Nearly four of 10 voters say their vote for Congress will be a signal of opposition to Mr. Bush; two in 10 say it will signal support for him.
On key issues, Democrats hold the upper hand. They enjoy a 28-percentage-point edge on the question of which party could best deal with Social Security, the issue Mr. Bush unsuccessfully sought to capitalize on in 2005; a 13-point lead in handling the economy; a 10-point edge on ethics in government; and a three-point edge on immigration, which congressional Republicans had hoped to make their signature issue.
Republicans retained their edge, though diminished, on dealing with the fight against terror, nuclear proliferation and moral issues.
But public dismay over Iraq and the Foley scandal overwhelmed all else for Republicans. Mr. Hart called the Foley story "the coagulant" that caused voters' uncertainties about the Republican-led Congress to jell. "This is the event that allowed certain voters to say, 'Enough,' " he said.
By 47% to 14%, voters say what they have learned in recent weeks makes them feel "less favorable" toward Republicans retaining their majority on Capitol Hill. By contrast, voters say by 37% to 22% that they feel more favorably disposed toward Democrats winning control.
Nearly all have heard of the Foley scandal, and most are unhappy with how House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republican leaders have handled it. Fully 55% — including four of 10 conservatives — are dissatisfied with the actions of Republican leaders. That is twice the 27% who say they are satisfied.
Amid unrelenting bad news from Iraq as sectarian violence rages there, just 33% of voters approve of Mr. Bush's handling of the war, down from 36% in June. Disapproval has risen to 63%.
By an overwhelming 68% to 20%, voters calls themselves "less optimistic" about the course of events in Iraq. A 57% majority says the president hasn't given good reasons for U.S. troops to remain there. And ominously for Republican congressional candidates, a 39% plurality say Democrats could better deal with Iraq, while 31% prefer Republicans. That reverses the five-point edge Republicans held early last month.
By 40% to 31%, a plurality of voters now see the situation in Iraq as a civil war among Iraqis, rather than a war between American troops and foreign terrorists there. Significantly, Mr. McInturff said, that assessment is shared by those who voted for Mr. Bush in 2004 and those who supported Democratic Sen. John Kerry for president — groups that agree on little else.
If Americans continue to see U.S. troops caught in the middle of a civil war, Mr. McInturff said, "that will ratchet up the pressure to terminate our deployment in Iraq."