Poll: Democrats’ advantage on key issues is not translating to a midterm-election edge

The American people trust Democrats more than Republicans on some of the key issues of the day, but that has not translated into any political advantage in the battle for control of the House and Senate in this year’s midterm elections, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Midterm elections generally favor the party that does not hold the White House, which gives the GOP a head start this year. Political handicappers rate Republicans as favorites to maintain their House majority and say the GOP has a legitimate opportunity to gain the six seats it needs to take control of the Senate.

The Post-ABC survey affirms those projections, showing Republicans in a stronger position than Democrats in the states with Senate races this fall and more than holding their own in the battle for control of the House. In the 34 states with Senate races, 50 percent of voters say they favor Republicans and 42 percent favor Democrats.

That is the case despite the Republican Party’s poor image nationally and its deficit on some important issues. About two in three Americans say the GOP is out of touch “with the concerns of most people in the United States today.”

Fewer than six in 10 Republicans say their party is in touch with the public, while four in 10 say the party is out of touch. But that is significantly better than last year, in the wake of Republicans’ 2012 presidential election defeat. Then, just four in 10 said they were in touch, while almost half said they were not.

Republicans seen as out of touch, but not at midterm disadvantage

The public is evenly divided on whether President Obama and the Democrats share the concerns of average Americans. The fact that neither could muster a clear majority is one sign of the public’s unhappiness with elected officials.

The poll shows broad dissatisfaction with Washington politicians. Just 22 percent say they are inclined to reelect their representatives in Congress. Almost seven in 10 Americans (68 percent) say they are inclined to look around for someone new this fall, the highest percentage recorded in a Post-ABC poll.

That does not mean the fall elections will mean defeat for significant numbers of House members, given the high reelection rates for incumbents and the polarized voting patterns of recent years. But it does underscore how little the public values their officeholders, whose historically low ratings have persisted.

With President Obama and Congress at loggerheads on major issues and little prospect for legislative action on major initiatives, the president’s approval ratings have shown little change since earlier this year. His overall rating is still a net negative, with 46 percent saying they approve of the job he is doing and 50 percent disapproving, the same as in January.

Majorities of Americans continue to disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy and of the implementation of his signature health-care law. But after a noticeable decline late last year after the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, attitudes about his handling of the law have stabilized over the first months of this year.

Despite the problems with the health-care law’s implementation, Democrats maintain an edge over Republicans on which party Americans trust to deal with the issue, by a margin of 44 percent to 36 percent. Democrats hold advantages of the same size on energy and immigration. On helping the middle class, the Democrats have a 13-point advantage over the Republicans.

The public rates the two parties about evenly on handling the economy, dealing with taxes and managing the federal budget deficit. Earlier this year, Republicans had a 10-point edge on the deficit, but that has narrowed to two points.

Attitudes about the economy remain overwhelmingly negative, with 72 percent rating the economy as “not so good” or “poor.”

A majority (56 percent) say that, based on personal experience, the economy has begun to recover. But only 18 percent say it is a strong recovery. Four in 10 call the recovery weak, and the rest say it has not begun.

Republicans hold the advantage in the race for control of the House for several reasons. District boundaries now give the GOP a built-in edge, and fewer seats are truly competitive. All but about two-dozen House districts are occupied by someone from the same party as the presidential candidate who carried the district in 2012, which makes it harder for the opposing party to pick them off.

The survey found an almost even split on voting intentions for the House, with 46 percent of registered voters saying they would vote for the Democrat and 45 percent saying they would support the Republican. In January, it was 46 to 45 the other way.

This “generic” vote question is not a pure predictor of the outcome of House races, however. Less than half of eligible voters are expected to cast ballots, and the size of Republicans’ typical midterm edge is unclear. In October 2006, Democrats held a double-digit advantage on this barometer. That proved enough of a margin, with Democrats capturing control of the House that November. But in the month before Republicans made historic gains and took control of the House in 2010, this indicator still showed narrow support for the Democrats.

The survey asked Americans to rate whether they were more or less likely to vote for a candidate for Congress based on the candidate’s position on several issues. Half of all Americans say they are more likely to back a candidate who supports raising the minimum wage — a central part of the Democrats’ message this year — while just 19 percent say they would be less likely to vote for such a candidate. The remainder say it would make no difference.

On the other side of the ledger, the percentage of people who say they are less likely to support a candidate who backs the tea party movement (36 percent) was twice the percentage who say they are more likely (16 percent), with 41 percent saying that will not make any difference in how they vote.

Republicans are making opposition to the health-care law central to their political messaging this year. The survey found that 36 percent say they are less likely to support a candidate who favors the law, while 34 percent say they are more likely to support such a candidate.

Partisan differences are clear on this question. Among Republicans, 70 percent say they are less likely to support a candidate backing the law, while among Democrats, 57 percent say they are more likely to vote for someone who favors the law. Independents split nearly evenly, with 30 percent saying support for the law is a positive factor and 35 percent saying it’s a negative one.

Immigration reform, which remains stalled in Congress, is a divisive issue. Among those for whom it matters, 38 percent say they are less likely to vote for someone who favors a path to citizenship, while 30 percent say they would be more likely. This negative tilt contrasts sharply with numerous polls showing support for a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.

One aspect of this year’s elections is the number of tea party challengers who are taking on Republican incumbents, including half a dozen sitting GOP senators. By a narrow margin (47 to 41 percent), Republicans and GOP-leaning independents see this as a bad thing rather than a good thing.

But six in 10 Republicans who call themselves “very conservative” say such contests are a good thing, as do just more than half of tea party supporters. Conservative Republicans are narrowly supportive, 47 percent to 43 percent.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, including interviews on land lines and with cellphone-only respondents. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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