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Anger at Bush May Hurt GOP At Polls

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By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006

Intense and widespread opposition to President Bush is likely to be a sharp spur driving voters to the polls in this fall's midterm elections, according to strategists in both parties, a phenomenon that could give Democrats a turnout advantage over Republicans for the first time in recent years.

Polls have reflected voter discontent with Bush for many months, but as the election nears, operatives are paying special attention to one subset of the numbers. It is the wide disparity between the number of people who are passionate in their dislike of Bush vs. those who support him with equal fervor.

Lately, there have been a lot more of the former -- and even Republicans acknowledge that could spell trouble in closely contested congressional races.

"Angry voters turn out and vote their anger," said Glen Bolger, a pollster for several Republican congressional candidates. "Democrats will have an easier time of getting out their vote because of their intense disapproval of the president. That means we Republicans are going to have to bring our 'A' turnout game in November."

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 47 percent of voters "strongly" disapprove of Bush's job performance, vs. 20 percent who said they "strongly approve."

In the recent past, this perennial truism of politics -- emotion equals turnout -- has worked more to the Republican advantage. Several weeks before the 2002 midterm elections, Bush had 42 percent of voters strongly approving of him, compared with 18 percent in strong opposition. Democrats were stunned on election night when Republicans defied historical patterns and made gains in the House and Senate. The president's party usually loses seats during the first midterm elections after he takes office.

The premise behind the Democrats' hopes this year is simple, though not easy to quantify: People impassioned by anger or other sentiments are more likely to vote -- even in bad weather and in relatively low-profile races -- than are those who are demoralized or less emotional.

"In a midterm election, motivation is the biggest factor," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), head of his party's House campaign efforts this year.

Whether anti-Bush sentiments portend a political tidal wave in November is much debated, but Democrats hope they are hearing early echoes of 1974 and 1994. There was massive turnover of congressional seats in those midterm elections, as fired-up voters first punished Republicans for Watergate, and later turned on Democrats because of President Bill Clinton's failed health-care initiative and because of anger over House ethics abuses.

The intense opposition to Bush is larger than any faced by Clinton. For all the polarization the 42nd president inspired, Clinton's strong disapproval never got above 37 percent in Post-ABC polls during his presidency.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said GOP House candidates have reason to worry. His surveys find that 82 percent of Americans who say they voted for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 plan to vote for a Democrat for the House this year. But only 65 percent who voted for Bush say they will vote for a Republican House nominee, Garin said. The remaining 35 percent say they are open to voting for a Democrat or staying home.

"We get a large chunk of Bush voters who are not motivated to go out and vote for Republicans this fall," Garin said. "That puts a lot of red districts into play."


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