By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006 11:12 AM
After a brief rise in September, President Bush's approval ratings began to head down again in early October, a worrisome sign to anxious Republicans. They know that no modern political party has successfully weathered a midterm election with a president as low in the polls as George W. Bush has been.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, completed Oct. 8, showed Bush's approval at 39 percent, with 60 percent saying they disapprove of his performance -- 48 percent saying they strongly disapprove. CNN also pegged his approval at 39 percent but other polls put the president in worse shape: CBS-New York Times put it at 34 percent, Newsweek at 33 percent.
Bush hit his low point around May. Democrats and Independents remain about as negative today toward Bush as they were then. To the extent that his numbers are higher, it is because some of the Republicans who had defected earlier have come home -- a typical pattern in the fall of an election season.
When the president's numbers bounced up above the 40 percent threshold in September, strategists wondered whether that was the beginning of a sustainable trend or merely a spike. The latest findings suggest it was the latter.
It is a reality of midterm elections that the party holding the White House often suffers big losses even if the president is popular. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's approval rating was at 57 percent in 1958, but Republicans still lost 48 seats in the House.
The best any party has done when its president has dipped below 50 percent was in 1978. That fall, President Jimmy Carter's approval rating was 49 percent and the Democrats lost 15 House seats -- exactly the number Democrats need this year to win back the chamber.
Historical analogies are imperfect. The gerrymandering of House districts today means fewer seats are likely to change hands even in bad times for the party in power. But there are enough House districts in play this fall to produce gains big enough to shift control of the House from Republicans to Democrats.
Political scientists have produced forecasting models that project substantial losses for the Republicans this year. But one of those scholars said recently the more Bush's approval rating rises, the fewer seats Democrats are likely to gain.
Alan Abramowitz of Emory University said his model projects Democratic gains of about 25 seats. That is based in part on presidential ratings in which Bush's disapproval is about 17 percentage points lower than his approval. If the president could cut that gap by about 10 percentage points, Abramowitz said, his model would reduce projected Democratic gains by about nine seats, meaning Democrats would still win back the House, but barely.
Bush has beaten the odds before. In 2002, his party gained seats in the House and Senate, the first time any president had accomplished that in a midterm since 1934. But his approval rating then exceeded 60 percent. He also surprised some Democrats in 2004, winning reelection with an approval rating that stayed just below 50 percent through most of the fall campaign.
For all practical purposes, Bush's approval rating is a matter of concern for every GOP candidate, which is why the White House is working to boost the president's popularity. Some races will be competitive in almost any situation, but if the president starts to dip even lower, he can put at risk Republicans who otherwise would not expect a difficult race.
Among the races worth watching are two Senate races in the Northeast. Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), who often has parted company with the president, nonetheless faces a tough reelection contest in a state in which Bush's approval rating is the lowest in the nation, according to polls by Survey USA. In New Jersey, Bush's unpopularity may be Sen. Bob Menendez's (D) ace-in-the hole in holding off a tough challenge from Tom Kean Jr.
Three House races could pivot on the public's attitudes toward Bush. In Connecticut's 5th District, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) remains in a difficult battle in a state where Bush's approval ratings are among the lowest in the nation. In Ohio's 15th District, Rep. Deborah Pryce, a member of the House GOP leadership, not only has to escape the president's unpopularity, she now has to worry about fallout from the Mark Foley scandal. In Kentucky's 3rd District, Ann Northup (R) faces another fight in a district Bush lost in 2000 and 2004.