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Republicans making gains against Democrats ahead of midterm elections

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.

Independents' disapproval of the president has reached an all-time high, with 57 percent giving him negative marks. About 61 percent of independents say Obama has not brought change to Washington. Nearly half now consider him "too liberal" ideologically.

Overall, by a 13-point margin, independent voters say they would support Republican over Democratic candidates in their House districts. A majority of independents - 59 percent - say they would prefer to have Republicans in charge of Congress to serve as a check on the president's agenda.

Just 34 percent of all voters - and 27 percent of independent voters - say most Democrats in Congress deserve to be reelected. Four years ago, a month before Democrats won control of the House, 55 percent of all voters said most Democratic representatives deserved another term.

Still, voters are just as unenthusiastic about Republican incumbents. Barely 31 percent of all voters and independents alike say most GOP lawmakers have earned another term.

Nor do many voters credit the opposition with a distinct message: Forty-five percent say Republicans are offering the country a clear direction that is different from that of the Democrats, while 48 percent say they are not.

Negative views of the federal government have jumped higher this year, with 78 percent of voters saying they are dissatisfied or angry about the way Washington works. That's more anti-government sentiment than at any point in 1994, when Republicans won back control of Congress, and the most to say so since the fall of 1992.

Deteriorating views of the economy are a prime culprit. Since June, there has been an eight-point jump in the number of Americans who think the economy is worsening and a parallel six-point slide in the number who say things are improving. Fifty-three percent say the economy is in "poor" shape, the first time a majority has said so since early April.

The survey was completed before the release of Friday's jobs report, which showed the unemployment rate ticking up to 9.6 percent but also somewhat better-than-expected growth in private-sector jobs.

A third of all Americans say Obama's policies are making things worse economically, up seven points from April to its highest level. And the number who point the finger at Obama for economic stagnation is also on the rise, with 42 percent saying the administration deserves a great deal or a good amount of blame for the state of the economy, up 15 points from a year ago.

Democrats can point to the even higher numbers of people who continue to blame the George W. Bush administration for the country's economic problems, although that number - 60 percent - is creeping downward.

The poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results from the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

balzd@washpost.com cohenj@washpost.com

Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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