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."
Republican officials acknowledge Bush's problems but predict they will not translate into significant setbacks this fall. "I don't think that intensity is going to be a problem at all" in key House races, said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Both parties will spend heavily on those races, he said, "so every person who's going to vote will have seen TV ads, gotten phone calls, gotten mail." That will give them ample information to base their decision on the candidates, not on their feelings toward Bush, Forti said. He noted that polls continue to show that most Americans approve of their own House member even if they dislike Congress as a whole, and that bodes well for the party in power.
"They may be upset nationally," Forti said. "But clearly that does not mean they're not going to go vote for their congressman." House elections will turn mainly on local issues and nominees, he said.
The Post-ABC News poll found that 59 percent of registered voters approve of their own representative, a lower number than in past months. But only 35 percent approve of the way Congress is doing its job. Forty percent said they plan to vote for a Republican in this year's House elections, and 55 percent said they will vote for a Democrat.
Republicans will court voters such as Johanna Lee, an insurance customer-service representative from northeast Maryland, a state with sharply contested races for Senate and governor.
Lee, 62, describes herself as a conservative Democrat who regrets voting for Bush in 2000 and 2004. She opposes his willingness to grant guest-worker status to illegal immigrants, who she feels "should be taken out of our country." Lee initially supported the invasion of Iraq, but says now "we should come out of the war because we're not doing any good there."
Despite her discontent, Lee said she would consider voting for Republicans for Congress and governor this fall. "I don't vote party," she said. "I vote for the candidate."
Other voters are less charitable. Shirley Jackson of Woodbury, Minn., said she formerly considered herself an independent voter "and my husband used to be a staunch Republican. But now we're both Democrats."
The main reason, she said, is Bush's handling of the war. "My husband and I think he lied to us, and he won't admit he's lied to us," said Jackson, 69. She said she believes Bush launched the war to avenge Iraq's reported plan to assassinate his father.
Jackson is following the competitive race to replace retiring Sen. Mark Dayton (D), and she doesn't like Republican candidate Mark Kennedy. "I won't vote for him, I'm pretty sure," she said.
In Collierville, Tenn., school bus driver Charlotte Bruce is worried Bush will prove ruinous to GOP candidates this fall.
"He's making such fools out of Republicans that no matter what the Democrats present, that's the one that's going to get in," she said. "And that's frightening," because the country needs bipartisan balance, she said.
Bruce, 54, said she is a moderate Republican and has given money to the party, but now she is exasperated with Bush and his economic policies. She recounted a conversation with neighbors who support Bush because of "moral issues." "I said, 'While he's not killing babies, he's killing you' " with high gasoline prices, a soaring deficit and other problems, Bruce said. "He is going to bankrupt us all."
She said she will vote for Democrat Harold E. Ford Jr. in the contest to replace retiring Sen. Bill Frist (R). She called Ford, a five-term House member from nearby Memphis, "a wonderful gentleman."
Garin predicts that Bush's unpopularity will produce many voters like Bruce and Jackson in November. "The rule this year," he said, playing on an adage, "may be that all local politics is national."
Chris Cillizza, a staff writer for washingtonpost.com, contributed to this report.