By David S. Broder and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Democrats have regained a commanding position going into the final weeks of the midterm-election campaigns, with support eroding for Republicans on Iraq, ethics and presidential leadership, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Apparent Republican gains in September have been reversed in the face of mounting U.S. casualties and gloomy forecasts from Iraq and the scandal involving Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who was forced to resign his congressional post over sexually graphic online conversations with former House pages.
Approval of Congress has plunged to its lowest level in more than a decade (32 percent), and Americans, by a margin of 54 percent to 35 percent, say they trust Democrats more than Republicans to deal with the biggest problems the nation is confronting. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said congressional Democrats deserve to be reelected next month, but just 39 percent said Republicans deserve to return to office.
The poll measures broad public attitudes and cannot be translated into individual House districts, but it sketches an environment that is the most difficult the Republicans have faced since taking control of Congress in the 1994 elections. By a margin of 54 percent to 41 percent, registered voters said they plan to vote for the Democrat over the Republican in congressional elections next month.
Since Congress adjourned 10 days ago, Republicans have been swamped by bad news, particularly from Iraq. The Foley scandal, while not a dominant voting issue for many, nonetheless has contributed to dissatisfaction with the majority party's performance, the survey found.
President Bush's approval rating, which rose to 42 percent in September after an anti-terrorism offensive marking the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, registered 39 percent in the latest poll. The percentage of respondents who said they strongly disapprove of his performance is about double the number who strongly approve. This disparity in voter intensity could have implications for turnout on Nov. 7, since impassioned voters are most likely to go to the polls.
The president's approval rating reached a low of 33 percent in May, but he has since regained support from Republicans who had expressed unhappiness with his performance. In the current poll, 82 percent of Republicans said they approve of how he is handling his job, compared with 68 percent in May.
Democrats and independents are almost as negative in their appraisals of the president now as they were five months ago.
Bush's ratings on the war in Iraq are among the lowest of his presidency, with 35 percent approving of how he is handling the situation and 64 percent disapproving (54 percent strongly disapprove). On terrorism, a majority (53 percent) said they disapprove of his performance. That is the lowest rating Bush has received on his signature issue.
Asked whether the war in Iraq has been worth fighting, 63 percent said no, the highest recorded during Bush's presidency. Fifty-one percent agreed with Bush's argument that Iraq is a front in the global campaign against terrorism, the lowest of his presidency. Fifty percent of those surveyed said that the country is safer today than it was before Sept. 11, 2001, but 42 percent, a new high, said the nation is now less safe.
Still, there is no significant support for withdrawing U.S. forces immediately. Half of those surveyed -- about the same percentage it has been throughout the year -- said they would like to see troop levels decrease. Despite the high number of casualties, only a fifth said they supported immediate withdrawal.
With the decline in gasoline prices, Americans are somewhat more positive about the economy, with 47 percent describing it as good or excellent -- the highest since July 2001 -- and 53 percent saying it is not so good or poor. Forty-one percent approve of how Bush has handled economic issues, about the same percentage as in August.
Bush's performance remains a potentially significant factor in the midterm elections, with 35 percent of those surveyed saying they will use their congressional votes to express opposition to the president, a new high on that question, and about twice the number who said they will use their votes to show support for him.
The Post-ABC News poll is based on interviews with 1,204 adults and was conducted Oct. 5-8. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
The Foley scandal has remained a key news item over the past 10 days and the poll shows that Americans are reading and watching. Seven in 10 said they are following the story "very" or "somewhat" closely. But only about two in 10 said the issue will be very important in their votes next month.
The political fallout is mixed. Almost two-thirds said Republican leaders tried to cover up the scandal, but about the same percentage said they think Democratic leaders would have done the same. More than three in five said Democrats are criticizing Republican leaders for political advantage. Voters are evenly split over whether House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) should step down from his post.
There is broad dissatisfaction among voters this fall, with one-third saying the country is heading in the right direction. Similarly, Congress has proved to be a disappointment to most Americans, with two in three saying they disapprove of its performance, the highest number in a Post-ABC News poll since November 1995.
As bad as these findings are, they are not as bad as they were in the months before Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994. Congressional approval hit 18 percent in October of that year.
On another measure, 60 percent of those surveyed in the new poll said they approve of the performance of their own House member. That compares with 49 percent in an October 1994 poll.
The new poll suggests that there are few issues on which Republicans can hope to appeal to voters in the next four weeks. When respondents were asked which party they trust to handle various issues, Democrats led on every subject, by 33 percentage points on health care, 19 points for ethics, 17 points for the economy, 13 points each for Iraq and immigration.
Even on terrorism, which Republicans hoped to turn into a powerful issue this fall, Democrats led in trustworthiness by six percentage points, reversing a seven-point deficit in September.
There are also modest signs that Democrats have improved their posture among voters. For the first time, a narrow majority, 52 percent, said Democrats are offering the country a clear alternative direction to Bush and Republicans. While Americans are split on the performance of congressional Democrats -- 48 percent approve, 50 percent disapprove -- they are overwhelmingly negative about GOP performance, with 63 percent disapproving and 35 percent approving.
Republicans are closely monitoring Christian conservatives for signs of disaffection that might contribute to lower voter turnout next month. The Post-ABC poll shows that they are not as strong in their support for Republican House candidates as they were in 2004, but it is unclear whether that is related to the Foley scandal. Forty-eight percent of white evangelical Christians said that House GOP leaders took the proper steps in responding to Foley's actions, compared with 60 percent of all conservative Republicans.
Robert Nelson, a machinist from Laurens, S.C., said the Iraq war is one of the issues that have turned him against the Republican Party. "I guess you could said I'm a Reaganite," he said. "Ronald Reagan got me interested in the Republican Party and I pretty much voted the party line." He did not support Bush two years ago, he said, and now thinks the country would be better off with Democrats in control of Congress. "The Republican Party has lost track, gone off in their own direction," he said.
Francis Jacobs, a computer tutor and technician from Grand Ledge, Mich., said he thinks Hastert should resign as speaker because "he knew more" about what was going on with Foley. Jacobs thinks that both parties "are having a field day" with the scandal but is highly critical of the Republican-controlled Congress.
"The question is, what have they accomplished?" he said. "They've accomplished nothing."
In the Post-ABC News poll, 71 percent agreed that Congress did little or nothing this year.
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.