Independent Voters Favor Democrats by 2 to 1 in Poll

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Two weeks before the midterm elections, Republicans are losing the battle for independent voters, who now strongly favor Democrats on Iraq and other major issues facing the country and overwhelmingly prefer to see them take over the House in November, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The new poll underscores how much of a drag the war threatens to be on Republican candidates in competitive races. With debate underway in Washington about possible course changes in Iraq, Americans cite the war as the most important issue in determining their vote next month more often than any other issue, and those who do favor Democrats over Republicans by 76 percent to 21 percent.

Independents are poised to play a pivotal role in next month's elections because Democrats and Republicans are basically united behind candidates of their own parties. Ninety-five percent of Democrats said they will support Democratic candidates for the House, while slightly fewer Republicans, 88 percent, said they plan to vote for their party's candidates.

The independent voters surveyed said they plan to support Democratic candidates over Republicans by roughly 2 to 1 -- 59 percent to 31 percent -- the largest margin in any Post-ABC News poll this year. Forty-five percent said it would be good if Democrats recaptured the House majority, while 10 percent said it would not be. The rest said it would not matter.

The poll also found that independents are highly pessimistic about the Iraq war and the overall state of the country. Just 23 percent said the country is heading in the right direction, compared with 75 percent who said things have gotten off track. Only a quarter of independents approve of the job Congress has done this year. Only a third say the Iraq war is worth fighting. A month before the 2004 election, independents were almost evenly split on that question.

Independent voters may strongly favor Democrats, but their vote appears motivated more by dissatisfaction with Republicans than by enthusiasm for the opposition party. About half of those independents who said they plan to vote Democratic in their district said they are doing so primarily to vote against the Republican candidate rather than to affirmatively support the Democratic candidate. Just 22 percent of independents voting for Democrats are doing so "very enthusiastically."

Among the electorate as a whole, the poll highlighted how the political climate continues to favor Democrats. President Bush's approval rating among all Americans stood at 37 percent. Two weeks ago he was at 39 percent, and in September he was at 42 percent. By more than 2 to 1, Americans disapprove of the way Congress has been doing its job.

The generic vote for the House -- a question that asks people which party they favor in their district but that does not match actual candidates against one another -- remained strongly in the Democrats' favor, 54 percent to 41 percent.

These national numbers do not translate directly into predictions of whether Democrats will gain the 15 House seats or six Senate seats they need to take control of those chambers. But an analysis of the findings sheds light on why Republicans are now deeply worried about losing their House majority and why the Senate is in play as well.

The poll showed that Democrats not only have a significant advantage in blue states -- those won in the 2004 presidential race by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) -- but also have a narrow advantage in Bush-backing red states, which helps to explain why the number of GOP-held seats that appear competitive has increased recently.

Iraq is cited most frequently as the most important issue in the midterm elections. Two weeks ago, 26 percent of those surveyed cited the war as the single most important issue determining their vote in November, compared with 23 percent who cited the economy and 14 percent who said terrorism. In the new poll, 27 percent said Iraq, 19 percent cited the economy and 14 percent said terrorism.

Independents are almost as likely as Democrats to cite Iraq as the single most important issue in the campaign. Both groups are twice as likely as Republicans to single out the war when asked about the election's top issues.

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