Voters' support for members of Congress is at an all-time low, poll finds

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; A01

As voters head to the polls Tuesday for a crucial set of primary elections, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds antipathy toward their elected officials rising and anti-incumbent sentiment at an all-time high.

The national survey shows that 29 percent of Americans now say they are inclined to support their House representative in November, even lower than in 1994, when voters swept the Democrats out of power in the that chamber after 40 years in the majority.

The poll also finds growing disapproval of the "tea party" movement, with half the population now expressing an unfavorable impression of the loosely aligned protest campaign that has shaken up politics this year.

And at a time when Republicans anticipate significant gains in House and Senate elections, there is also fresh evidence of the challenges facing the GOP. Six in 10 poll respondents say they have a negative view of the policies put forward by the Republican minority in Congress, and about a third say they trust Republicans over Democrats to handle the nation's main problems.

This sour mood has made for nervous politicians, as candidates from both parties have tried to figure out what voters want -- and don't want. On Tuesday, hopefuls in Virginia and 11 other states will find out. It is the busiest single primary day of the year, and a big test of just how deep anti-incumbent and anti-establishment feelings go.

Most attention is focused on Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln is struggling to fend off a challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a runoff election. (One interesting thing to note about Tuesday's primaries: The most closely watched races all feature women.) If Lincoln were to lose, she would be the third senator and fourth incumbent to fall this year. Halter has strong support from organized labor. Lincoln has President Obama's backing, but after the May 18 primary, she called in former president Bill Clinton to help her.

A different test of voter anger is unfolding in Nevada, where the tea party's power will be a major issue in Tuesday's voting. Former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who has strong tea party support, is trying to fend off two significant challengers for a Senate nomination -- former state senator Sue Lowden and businessman Danny Tarkanian -- in a crowded primary field. The Nevada GOP winner will take on vulnerable Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D) in November.

Nevada Republicans also appear ready to dump scandal-tainted Gov. Jim Gibbons on Tuesday.

In California, Republicans will pick a challenger to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who is considered vulnerable in her bid for a fourth term. Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina has led in recent polls over former congressman Tom Campbell and state Assemblyman Chuck Devore. The contest has largely come down to a debate over who has the best chance of defeating Boxer.

Also in California, former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman is favored over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner to capture the GOP gubernatorial nomination. She has spent more than $70 million of her own money. The winner of the primary will face Attorney General Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., a former governor and the expected Democratic nominee, in the general election.

On the other side of the country, dirty politics has marked the South Carolina Republican gubernatorial primary. State Rep. Nikki Haley has been the subject of infidelity accusations from two men -- which she has adamantly denied -- and a racial slur by a Republican state senator. She is the front-runner, but if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held June 22.

Elections will also be held Tuesday in Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia. In Iowa, Republican former governor Terry Branstad, who was first elected in 1982 and served four terms, leads the field for the party's gubernatorial nomination and the right to challenge vulnerable Gov. Chet Culver (D).

Elected officials nationwide are feeling their constituents' dissatisfaction. In the new Post-ABC poll, 69 percent of all Americans say they are either dissatisfied or angry with the government, and 60 percent say they are inclined to look for other candidates in November, the most ever in a Post-ABC poll.

Democrats are likely to suffer disproportionately from the tough climate: They are in the majority in both houses of Congress and are defending many more districts than Republicans. The public sees little improvement in the nation's direction or the state of the economy. Six in 10 say the country is on the wrong track and 88 percent rate the economy as not good or poor, with just 30 percent saying it is improving.

Yet Democrats maintain at least one advantage: They hold a double-digit edge over the GOP as the party that people trust to handle the country's main problems.

Another big element that may mute the threat to Democrats is that the GOP has not gained significant traction. Most Americans -- including nearly a third of self-identified Republicans -- say they are dissatisfied with or angry at the policies of congressional Republicans. These numbers have changed little since last November, despite the GOP's focus on offering a more concrete agenda rather than simply Democratic proposals.

Obama's overall approval ratings have remained fairly steady. More than half of those surveyed, 52 percent, say they approve of the way he is handling his job, and for the first time since last fall, half approve of how he is dealing with the economy.

There are new vulnerabilities in public perceptions of the president, however, that may provide fresh openings for Republicans to reframe the debate. Nearly half, 48 percent, now say that Obama does not understand the problems of people like them, the highest of his presidency. For the first time, a slim majority of independents say Obama is out of touch with their problems. Most Americans continue to view the president as a strong leader, but the proportion has declined.

Obama has been criticized recently as not showing sufficient concern for people along the Gulf Coast who are suffering from the effects of the worst oil spill in the nation's history.

The poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday among a random sample of 1,004 adults contacted by conventional and cellular telephone. 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.

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