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.
Independents do not limit their criticism of the war's handling to the president. Fifty-five percent of independents said congressional Republicans deserve a "great deal" or a "good amount" of the blame for problems in Iraq. Fewer, 36 percent, give congressional Republicans credit for helping prevent terrorist attacks against the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush agreed last week with a commentator's suggestion that a recent surge in violence in Iraq could be equivalent to the 1968 Tet Offensive, which marked a turning point in U.S. public support for the Vietnam War. But the percentage of Americans who believe that Iraq could be another Vietnam is no higher, at 45 percent, than it was in June.
Four in 10 Americans said the war is not worth fighting, and three in four said the war has damaged the United States' image in the rest of the world. Not quite half of those surveyed said that overall, the war has helped to improve the lives of the Iraqi people, a sharp decline since June, when roughly seven in 10 believed it had.
The small decline in the economy's ranking as a top voting issue comes at a time when Americans are increasingly upbeat about the state of the national economy. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said the economy is "good" or "excellent," a sharp jump over the past two weeks and the highest since Bush took office.
But Republicans appear to be getting little tangible benefit from the growing economic optimism, which has come amid declining gasoline prices and a record high in the Dow Jones industrial average. Those who cite the economy as the most important issue favor Democrats by 18 percentage points, 57 percent to 39 percent.
One reason is that only a quarter of those surveyed said they are getting ahead financially. About the same number said they are falling behind. Most, however, said they are just able to maintain their standard of living. Republicans have an advantage only among those who say their financial condition is improving.
Among those voting primarily on Iraq, Democrats hold a sizable lead, 76 percent to 21 percent, in voting intentions. Democrats also are favored by voters who cite health care as their most important issue, while those voting on terrorism or immigration strongly favor Republicans.
Voters also continue to trust Democrats more than Republicans to deal with the war, the economy, North Korea and ethics in government. On terrorism, the two parties are at parity.
But independents, the key swing voter group, strongly trust the Democrats on all of those issues by margins ranging from 14 percentage points on terrorism to 23 points on Iraq and North Korea and 26 points on ethics in government.
The growing independent support for Democratic House candidates represents a significant shift in attitudes since the 2004 election, when Democrats held only a slim advantage. In winning reelection, Bush narrowly lost the independent vote, 50 percent to 48 percent, and in the vote for the House, independents split 50 to 46 for Democratic candidates.
One important question that will affect the outcome of the elections is who shows up to vote. More Democrats than Republicans, 32 percent vs. 24 percent, said they are "very closely" following the campaign, and Democrats are more likely to be very enthusiastic about voting. Independents show less enthusiasm about this election than do Democrats or Republicans.
Almost three in five respondents said this congressional election is more important than past congressional elections. A higher percentage of Democrats said this election has more significance than did Republicans or independents.
Both parties are making extraordinary efforts to turn out their voters in November. Twenty-nine percent of registered voters said they had been contacted by one party or the other for their votes, and three in 10 of those said they had been contacted by advocates for both parties.
Republicans appear to be doing a better job of contacting independents. In the poll, 45 percent of those independents who said they had been contacted said they were urged to vote for Republicans, while 17 percent said they were urged to vote for Democrats. The rest said they were contacted by both sides.
The Post-ABC News poll findings are based on telephone interviews with 1,200 adults conducted Thursday through Sunday. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.