House Incumbents at Risk, Poll Finds

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By Peter Baker and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Most Americans describe themselves as being in an anti-incumbent mood heading into this fall's midterm congressional elections, and the percentage of people who approve of their own representative's performance is at the lowest level since 1994, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As attention turns to Connecticut for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's Democratic primary showdown today, the poll found some of the same political currents that have buffeted his campaign flowing through the national electorate. The public has soured on politicians backing the Iraq war, which Democrats consider the most important issue of the election.

Eighty-one percent of Democrats say the war was not worth fighting, and 70 percent feel that way "strongly." A majority of Democrats, 54 percent, say a candidate endorsing Bush's Iraq policy would be less likely to get their vote, compared with 37 percent for whom it would not make much difference. Two in three Democrats say it is time to begin decreasing troop levels in Iraq, although only one in four supports immediate withdrawal.

Especially worrisome for members of Congress is that the proportion of Americans who approve of their own representative's performance has fallen sharply. Traditionally, voters may express disapproval of Congress as a whole but still vote for their own member, even from the majority party. But 55 percent now approve of their lawmaker, a seven-percentage-point drop over three months and the lowest such finding since 1994, the last time control of the House switched parties.

"That's dramatic," said Republican consultant Ed Rollins, who was White House political director under President Ronald Reagan.

In a small boost for Bush, his approval rating inched up to 40 percent, two percentage points higher than in June and seven higher than in May, suggesting he may have arrested a slide that deeply unnerved Republican lawmakers and strategists. But Bush's standing remains weak for a president in a midterm election year and problematic three months before Election Day.

At the same time, the poll's findings underline the challenge for Democrats. For all their disenchantment, most voters are not sure what the party stands for. Just 48 percent say Democrats offer a clear direction different from Republicans, while 47 percent say they do not. The public does not think that Bush or the Democrats have a clear plan for Iraq. Even a slight majority of Democrats say their party does not have an Iraq strategy.

The problem for Democratic candidates such as Lieberman who continue to support the war seems even plainer. Strategists wonder how many Democratic voters, like those backing Lieberman's challenger, Ned Lamont, feel so strongly about the issue that will be willing to punish one of their own who strays. "It was a problem in 2004, and it's going to be a bigger problem in 2006 if you're a Democrat who's seen as an accommodationist or a capitulationist," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic consultant.

What Democrats have to do, he said, is emphasize a break from Bush's direction in Iraq, even if they disagree about how. Among voters across the board, 38 percent say they are more likely to oppose candidates who support Bush on Iraq compared with 23 percent who are more likely to support them. "On the big question -- 'Should we stay the course or should we make a change?' -- it seems overwhelmingly the public wants a change," Mellman said.

Some Republican strategists said they fear it may be enough for Democrats to hammer home on the troubles of the country. "There's just a frustration that a lot of things are going wrong and nobody in Washington understands," Rollins said. "Even though the Democrats haven't really picked up the ball and offered an alternative, the numbers keep getting worse and worse."

The poll mirrored results of surveys at this point 12 years ago, just three months before Republicans swept out Democratic majorities from both houses of Congress. Fifty-three percent now call themselves anti-incumbent, while 29 percent describe themselves as inclined to reelect lawmakers -- almost precisely the same percentages as in June 1994.

In another echo of 1994, the poll showed Congress remains broadly unpopular, with six in 10 Americans disapproving of its performance. The only consolation for members is that the 36 percent who approve represents a slight bump up from May, when the institution hit a 10-year low.

The generic ballot question, asking voters in general which party they would support in November, remained unchanged from the spring, with 52 percent favoring Democrats and 39 percent supporting Republicans. The lead narrows to 10 points among those who say they are closely following their local races.

The survey suggests that it is not just Republicans whose incumbents are in jeopardy. But it includes one important caveat -- as of now, few Republicans or Democrats plan to stray from their parties in November. The Democrats' lead stems from a big advantage among independents.

A total of 1,002 randomly selected adults were interviewed Aug. 3-6 for this survey. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for the overall results.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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