By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 4, 2007
One year out from the 2008 election, Americans are deeply pessimistic and eager for a change in direction from the agenda and priorities of President Bush, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Concern about the economy, the war in Iraq and growing dissatisfaction with the political environment in Washington all contribute to the lowest public assessment of the direction of the country in more than a decade. Just 24 percent think the nation is on the right track, and three-quarters said they want the next president to chart a course that is different than that pursued by Bush.
Overwhelmingly, Democrats want a new direction, but so do three-quarters of independents and even half of Republicans. Sixty percent of all Americans said they feel strongly that such a change is needed after two terms of the Bush presidency.
Dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq remains a primary drag on public opinion, and Americans are increasingly downcast about the state of the economy. More than six in 10 called the war not worth fighting, and nearly two-thirds gave the national economy negative marks. The outlook going forward is also bleak: About seven in 10 see a recession as likely over the next year.
The overall landscape tilts in the direction of the Democrats, but there is evidence in the new poll -- matched in conversations with political strategists in both parties and follow-up interviews with survey participants -- that the coming battle for the White House is shaping up to be another hard-fought, highly negative and closely decided contest.
At this point, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the Democratic front-runner, holds the edge in hypothetical match-ups with four of the top contenders for the Republican nomination. But against the two best-known GOP candidates, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), her margins are far from comfortable. Not one of the leading candidates in either party has a favorable rating above 51 percent in the new poll.
And while Clinton finds herself atop all candidates in terms of strong favorability -- in the poll, 28 percent said they feel strongly favorable toward her -- she also outpaces any other candidate on strong unfavorables. More than a third, 35 percent, have strongly negative views of her, more than 10 points higher than any other contender.
Overall, the public's sour mood is evident not only in the desire for a change in direction but also in assessments of those who control the reins of power in Washington. For the fourth consecutive month, Bush's approval rating remains at a career low. Thirty-three percent said they approve of the job he is doing, and 64 percent disapprove. Majorities have disapproved of Bush's job performance for more than 2 1/2 years.
In follow-up interviews, people were quick to find fault with what they see in Washington and to express their desire for something different. "I think Bush has been extremely polarizing to the country," said Amber Welsh, a full-time mother of three young children who lives in Davis, Calif. "While I think it started before Bush, I think Bush has pushed it even further. I think the next president needs to be one who brings us together as a country."
Democrats can take little comfort in Bush's numbers, however. A year after voters turned Republicans out of power in the House and the Senate, approval of the Democratic-controlled Congress's performance is lower than the president's rating, registering just 28 percent. That is the lowest since November 1995, when Republicans controlled Congress and the capital was paralyzed in a budgetary fight that shut down the government.
Congressional Democrats now fare just slightly better. Only 36 percent of those surveyed approve of the way they are handling their jobs, down sharply from April when, 100 days into the new Congress, 54 percent said they approved.
Whatever their dissatisfaction with the Democrats, however, a majority of Americans, 54 percent, said they want the party to emerge from the 2008 election in control of Congress; 40 percent would prefer the GOP to retake power. One reason is that 32 percent approve of congressional Republicans, and in a series of other measures it becomes clear that the eventual Republican nominee for president may be burdened by a tarnished party label in the general election.
Thirty-nine percent of Americans said they now have a favorable impression of the Republican Party, lower than at any point since December 1998, when Republicans were in the midst of impeachment proceedings against then-President Bill Clinton.
Among the GOP rank and file, Republican favorability has fallen 15 percentage points since March 2006 (from 93 percent to 78 percent). It has dropped 19 points among independents, whose support for Democratic candidates in last year's midterm elections contributed significantly to GOP losses in the House and the Senate.
Only 23 percent of those surveyed said they want to keep going "in the direction Bush has been taking us," and the appetite for change is as high as it was in the summer of 1992, in the lead-up to Bill Clinton's defeat of President George H.W. Bush. It is significantly higher than it was in the summer of 2000 or the fall of 1988.
"We're in a terrible mess," said Jay Davis, who works on computers for an insurance company and lives in Portland, Maine. "The war is an incredible mistake, and it becomes more and more obvious. The economy is just being propped up with toothpicks."
Jo Wright, a retired Episcopal priest from Vinita, Okla., said, "It just seems that after these eight years most people think there's got to be a change, and I'm with them."
Greg Coy, a 911 dispatcher who lives in Shippensburg, Pa., is less pessimistic about the overall state of the country than Davis or Wright, but he is unhappy with both the president and Congress. He voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, but he said: "If he came up again [for reelection], I wouldn't vote for him. The last year I think he's dropped something, and I'm not sure what it is."
Coy also offered a broader indictment of a political system he sees as gridlocked by partisanship. "Here's the problem with this country," he said. "Just because it's a Republican idea, Democrats don't like it, and because it's a Democratic idea, Republicans don't like it. The Congress should go with what works for this country. We have gotten away from that."
Justin Munro, a contractor from Reading, Pa., offered a less widely held view of Bush's policies and the direction of the country. "I'm pretty confident that time will prove that maybe going into Iraq was the right thing to do," he said. He also believes that Bush has not gotten enough credit on the economy: "I think we'll look back on that, too, and see that the tax cuts were the right thing to do."
At this stage, three issues dominate the electoral landscape, with the war in Iraq at the top of the list. Nearly half of all adults, 45 percent, cited Iraq as the most or second-most important issue in their choice for president. About three in 10 cited the economy and jobs (29 percent) or health care (27 percent). All other issues are in the single digits.
Iraq is tops across party lines, but Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to highlight health care as one of the two most important issues for 2008 (34 percent to 16 percent). Health-care concerns peak among African Americans: Twenty percent called it the election's most important issue, and 38 percent said it is one of the top two.
While 12 percent of Republicans and 10 percent of independents cited immigration as one of the top two issues, it was highlighted by 3 percent of Democrats. Terrorism is also a more prominent concern among Republicans; 17 percent put it in their top two, while 3 percent of Democrats did the same.
The Democratic Party holds double-digit leads over the GOP as the party most trusted to handle the three most frequently cited issues for 2008: Iraq, health care and the economy. The Democratic advantages on immigration and taxes are narrower, and the parties are at rough parity on terrorism, once a major Republican strong point.
There are other signs suggesting that the political landscape has become less favorable to Republicans than it was at the beginning of Bush's presidency. By 50 percent to 44 percent, Americans said they favor smaller government with fewer services over bigger government with more services -- long a key Republican argument. But support for smaller government is significantly lower than it was before both the 2000 and 2002 elections.
In the new poll, support for allowing same-sex civil unions is up significantly from 2004. A majority of respondents, 55 percent, now support giving homosexual couples some of the legal rights of married heterosexuals.
There is a more even divide on another hot-button issue: Fifty-one percent would support a program giving illegal immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements; 44 percent would oppose that.
Strategists in both parties agree on the overall shape of the political landscape a year from the 2008 election, but they differ as to how voters will ultimately register their desire for change.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said an electorate that took out its anger on Republicans a year ago remains mad, with the hostility still focused on the president's party.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said, "It is a political environment pretty heavily tilted toward the Democrats." One hope, he added, is that an early end to the GOP nominating battle will allow the winner time "to put the current administration in the rearview mirror, placing the focus on the nominee's candidacy and agenda."
Still, strategists on both sides foresee another close election. "The biggest dynamic is that people want change from the policies of the Bush administration," said Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist. But he added that "it's not a clear path" to victory for the Democrats, noting that no Democratic nominee has won 50 percent of the general-election vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Stuart Stevens, a media adviser to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, said no Republican candidate will argue next year that the country is in great shape, but he discounted the effectiveness of running against Bush in the fall of 2008. "A year from now, it's not going to be a referendum on President Bush, it's going to be a choice between two candidates," he said.
Much will happen in the coming months that could reshape the political climate. But at this point, in a matchup of current front-runners, Clinton and Giuliani are tightly paired: 50 percent of respondents would support Clinton, 46 percent Giuliani. Against McCain, Clinton has a clearer edge, 52 percent to 43 percent. She has even larger advantages over former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee (16 points) and Romney (18 points), both of whom remain undefined in the eyes of many voters.
In each of these potential contests, Clinton has a big edge among women. In a head-to-head with Giuliani, 56 percent of women would back Clinton, and 40 percent would vote for Giuliani. By contrast, men would tilt toward Giuliani 51 percent to 44 percent.
Independents, who fueled the Democratic takeover of Congress last November, are evenly divided, 47 percent for Clinton, 46 percent for Giuliani. The split is one indicator that, despite current Democratic advantages and an electorate strongly oriented toward change, the 2008 election is likely to be closely and hotly contested.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 among a random sample of 1,131 adults, and includes additional interviews with randomly selected African Americans for a total of 203 black respondents. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.