Republicans making gains against Democrats ahead of midterm elections

With Democrats facing dismal prospects in the November elections, the party is weighing President Barack Obama's role in the midterms.
By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 12:04 AM

Republicans are heading into the final weeks of the midterm campaign with the political climate highly in their favor, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Americans are increasingly frustrated by a lack of economic progress, deeply dissatisfied with the federal government and critical of President Obama's leadership.

For the first time in more than four years, Republicans run about evenly with Democrats on the basic question of which party they trust to handle the nation's biggest problems. Among registered voters, 40 percent say they have more confidence in Democrats and 38 percent say they have more trust in Republicans. Three months ago, Democrats had a 12-point advantage.

On the economy, 43 percent of voters side with Republicans when it comes to dealing with financial problems, while 39 percent favor Democrats. (Fifteen percent say they trust neither party more.) Although not a significant lead for Republicans, this marks the first time they have had any numerical edge on the economy dating to 2002. In recent years, Democrats have typically held double-digit advantages on the issue.

The principal obstacles to GOP electoral hopes continue to be doubts that Republicans have a clear plan for the country should they win control of the House or Senate in November. But overall, the poll shows that the party has made big gains in the public's estimation since earlier this year.

Among all voters, 47 percent say they would back the Republican in their congressional district if the election were held now, while 45 percent would vote for the Democrat. Any GOP advantage on this question has been rare in past years - and among those most likely to vote this fall, the Republican advantage swells to 53 percent to the Democrats' 40 percent.

Voters were also asked whether they think it is more important to have Democrats in charge of Congress to help support the president's policies or to have Republicans in control to serve as a check on Obama's agenda. Here, 55 percent say they prefer Republicans, while 39 percent choose Democrats. The GOP's 16-point edge is double what it was in July.

Obama's overall job rating is at a new low in Post-ABC polling, with just 46 percent of all Americans giving him positive marks and 52 percent negative ones. On two big issues, disapproval of the president's performance has reached new highs: Fifty-seven percent now disapprove of his handling of the economy and 58 percent give him low marks on dealing with the deficit.

The survey was taken during a week when Obama marked the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Overall, 49 percent say they approve of his work on the war, while 45 percent disapprove. Those numbers have not changed much from July but represent a large drop from early 2009, when he announced the plan to end combat missions in Iraq.

It's not just perceptions of Obama's job performance that have shifted during his presidency as political polarization has stiffened. Today, Americans divide about evenly on whether he understands their problems and shares their values.

Forty-five percent now consider the president's views on most issues "too liberal," another new high. In previous polls dating to early 2008, consistent majorities said they found Obama's positions "just about right" ideologically.

For the first time, a majority - 53 percent - of respondents say the president has not brought needed change to Washington, one of his major campaign promises.

The poll findings highlight one of the most significant problems for Obama and Democrats heading into fall: a steep erosion in support among independent voters. In 2008, Obama won independents by eight percentage points. In 2006, independents broke for Democratic House candidates by an unprecedented 18-point margin.

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