Poll finds Americans in an anti-incumbent mood as midterm elections near

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; A04

Members of Congress face the most anti-incumbent electorate since 1994, with less than a third of all voters saying they are inclined to support their representatives in November, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Dissatisfaction is widespread, crossing party lines, ideologies and virtually all groups of voters. Less than a quarter of independents and just three in 10 Republicans say they're leaning toward backing an incumbent this fall. Even among Democrats, who control the House, the Senate and the White House, opinion is evenly divided on the question.

"I'm not really happy right now with anybody" in Washington, Sandy Davis, 64, a Republican from Decatur, Ill. said in a follow-up interview. Although she expressed "mixed feelings" about a fresh crop of lawmakers, she added: "When the country was founded, those guys were all pretty new at it. How bad would it be?"

Still, for President Obama and his party, there are some positive signs in the poll. The public trusts Democrats more than Republicans to handle the major problems facing the country by a double-digit margin, giving Democrats a bigger lead than they held two months ago, when Congress was engaged in the long endgame over divisive health-care legislation. A majority continues to see Obama as "just about right" ideologically, despite repeated GOP efforts to define the president as outside the mainstream.

Those polled also say they trust Obama over Republicans in Congress to deal with the economy, health care and, by a large margin, financial regulatory reform. And the president continues to get positive marks on his overall job performance, with, for the first time since the fall, a majority of independents approving. Disaffection among independents with Obama's policies has been one of the major shifts in public opinion over the past year, making this small movement one to monitor over the coming months.

These shifts may be modest, but they come at a time when Obama and his fellow Democrats have been on the offensive, after months of playing defense on health care. The debate over financial reform in the Senate has given Democrats the opportunity to paint the opposition as defenders of Wall Street and unpopular financial institutions, while the passage of the health-care law has freed the White House from a burdensome issue that had taken a significant toll on the president.

"Health care is probably the latest thing that has made me concerned," said Vincent Riley, 46, who lives near Columbus, Ohio. Although Riley says he still supports Obama, for whom he voted in 2008, he's concerned generally about the lack of progress in Washington. "I think they are spending too much time going back and forth and not working together to get the job done."

High deficit, low numbers

On both the economy and health care, the country divides down the middle on Obama's stewardship of the White House, a slight improvement from the negative ratings he has received on these central issues over the past few months, although independents still tilt negative. The president's worst rating in the poll comes, again, on the federal budget deficit, where four in 10 say they approve of his performance. This is also the issue on which the GOP comes closest to Obama: 41 percent of respondents say they trust Republicans more here; 45 percent say the president.

While the budget deficit may be a weak point for Obama, his strategists have a ready pushback: Nearly three times as many Americans blame former president George W. Bush for the size of the shortfall as point the finger at Obama. Public perceptions on the state of the economy are roughly the same, with 59 percent blaming Bush for continued weakness and 25 percent finding Obama more culpable. Even about three in 10 Republicans blame Bush more than Obama for the deficit and the state of the economy.

Pointing in the opposite direction, however, are several other findings in the poll. On one of the major issues likely to be debated between now and November -- the size and scope of the federal government -- there's a great disconnect between what people say they want and their perceptions of Obama.

While a majority of Americans favor a smaller government with fewer services, more than three-quarters say they see the president as favoring a bigger government with more services.

To Rick, 46, an independent from Loudoun County (who asked that his last name not be used), Obama has failed to govern as a centrist: "This does not seem like the middle to me. I'm thinking maybe he doesn't care about another four years, just about his agenda."

Nearly half say the president is not doing enough to help the middle class, a view that's held by a majority of those with annual household incomes between $50,000 and $100,000. At the start of the general election campaign in 2008, 66 percent expected Obama, if elected, to do the right amount for the middle class; now, 44 percent say he has it just right.

Warnings for Democrats

If the overall trends continue, the sour public mood could result in sizable House and Senate losses for Democrats in the midterm elections, particularly if the unemployment rate sticks near double digits. The atmosphere reflects continued economic anxiety -- about three-quarters of Americans are worried about the direction of the economy, despite signs that a recovery is underway -- as well as the lingering after-effects of a convulsive political debate over the health-care law.

The mixed picture highlights the underlying dynamic of this election year: Democrats nervous and defensive, but grasping for advantages in the public debate to limit anticipated losses, and Republicans eager to balance conservatives' vocal enthusiasm with appeals to more moderate independents. Any sign of improvement for Obama is likely to be welcome news to other elected officials in his party, who recognize that their fates are probably tightly interconnected with the public's judgment of his presidency.

Democrats hold a slender advantage -- 48 percent to 43 percent -- among registered voters on the question of which party's candidate they would support if the congressional elections were held today. That's better for Democrats than in February but still another cause for unease within the party.

The figure is close to where it stood in the spring of 2006, the year Democrats reclaimed the majority in the House, but also in line with the partisan split in 1994, when they lost the chamber to the GOP after four decades in the majority.

The connection with the economy is clear: Among those who are concerned about it, the GOP holds a big edge in 2010 vote preferences.

Republicans also still count intensity on their side, a critical factor in midterm elections. On each domestic issue in the poll, more say they "strongly disapprove" of Obama's performance than say they are solidly behind his work.

The GOP's base is nearly universally opposed to the president; his approval rating among Republicans comes in at 12 percent in the poll. About 86 percent of Republicans say they disapprove, close to President Bill Clinton's worst rating among Republicans, reached in August 1994. Eighty percent of Republicans and 91 percent of conservative Republicans see Obama as "too liberal," both new highs.

Obama's best marks continue to come on foreign policy, where 56 percent say they approve of his handling of the war in Afghanistan. This is his strongest rating on the matter since his major review of U.S. war policy, which resulted in his December decision to further increase troop levels there.

The poll was taken after Obama hosted a summit aimed at reducing nuclear weapons around the world. About half of those surveyed -- 49 percent -- say they approve of his handling of nuclear weapons policy; 37 percent disapprove.

This poll was conducted by telephone April 22 to 25 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta, staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. and polling assistant Jennifer Neuner contributed to this report.

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