Democrats gain in poll but GOP still leads as midterm elections near

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 12:05 AM

Less than a month before the midterm elections, the political landscape remains strongly tilted toward Republicans, although Democrats have made modest improvements with voters since their late-summer low point, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Democrats have cut in half the GOP's early-September advantage on the question of which party's candidates voters say they will support on Nov. 2. They have also made small gains on the question of which party people trust to handle big issues, such as the economy and health care.

Voters give Democrats a significant edge as the party that would do a better job in helping the middle class, which has been a key campaign message from the White House in recent weeks.

President Obama's approval rating has rebounded to where it was in July after hitting an all-time low a month ago. Also, in some state races, Democratic candidates have taken the lead over their Republican opponents or narrowed GOP advantages.

Despite these apparent signs of improvement, the new Post-ABC poll suggests that Democrats remain at a significant disadvantage. Their hopes of holding down losses depend more on the performance of individual candidates than on dramatic changes in the overall climate.

The poll underscores how much support Democrats have lost among voters since 2006, the year the party recaptured control of Congress.

Among likely voters, Republicans hold a six-point edge, 49 percent to 43 percent, on the congressional ballot. At this time four years ago, Democrats led by 12 points. Then, Democrats also held a 19-point advantage when voters were asked which party they trusted to deal with the country's main problems.

Today, the public is almost evenly divided on that question, nearly matching public sentiment in October 1994, the last time Republicans won both the House and the Senate.

Looking toward Nov. 2, Republicans still hold two significant advantages. The poll shows that Republicans are paying closer attention to the elections than are Democrats. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans call the 2010 elections more important to the country than others in their lifetime.

A similar proportion of Republicans say it would be a "good thing" if the GOP won back control of Congress; only about half of Democrats see that potential result as a "bad thing."

Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to say they would back their incumbent House representative next month (40 percent to 26 percent). Independents are the most anti-incumbent, with just 23 percent saying they were inclined to vote to reelect their representative.

Meanwhile, independents continue to lean heavily toward the GOP in their voting intentions, a sharp change from both 2006 and 2008. Among independent voters most likely to cast ballots this year, 53 percent say they favor the Republican in their district, compared with 33 percent who favor the Democratic candidate.

Dissatisfaction with Washington politicians remains high, always a warning to the party in power. Approval of Congress stands at 23 percent among all registered voters, not much higher than it was at this time in 1994. Disapproval of congressional Democrats has reached a record high in Post-ABC polling, at 61 percent. But a continuing wild card in this fall's races is that disapproval of congressional Republicans is even higher, at 67 percent.

Anger about the way the federal government is working is far higher among Republicans (34 percent) and independents (30 percent) than it is among Democrats (12 percent).

Republicans and independents are also far gloomier in their assessment of the economy, and by huge margins they believe the money spent under the federal stimulus program has been mostly wasted. Nine in 10 Republicans and three-quarters of independents say that money has been misspent; far fewer Democrats, just over four in 10, agree.

Health care continues to divide the country, as it has for more than a year, with 47 percent saying they support the changes enacted this year and 48 percent saying they oppose them. Opinions continue to be highly polarized on this issue, with 75 percent of Democrats supporting the changes and 83 percent of Republicans opposed.

A slim majority of independents (53 percent) say they oppose the new law. Most opponents of the new law say they would support an effort to overturn it, either by another vote in Congress or through the courts.

Obama and the Democrats have argued that if Republicans were to gain control of Congress, they would return to the policies of President George W. Bush. Two-thirds of Democrats share that view and say it would be bad for the country. But almost a quarter of Democrats say a GOP-led Congress would take the country in a new and better direction or say a return to Bush's policies would be good.

Republicans overwhelmingly see a positive change in direction if their party wins control of Congress, and almost half of independents agree. About a third of independents say Republicans would reinstitute Bush's policies and view such a move negatively.

Another big wild card this year remains the emergence of the tea party movement.

A third of voters think tea party candidates, if elected this fall, would change the culture of Washington, with most seeing positive shifts.

About 15 percent of voters say they strongly support the tea party; they overwhelmingly favor Republican congressional candidates in the elections.

The telephone poll of 1,002 randomly selected adults was conducted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, including interviews with 879 registered voters and 669 likely to cast ballots in the upcoming congressional elections. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for the full sample, and four points for both voter groups.

Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp and polling consultant Meredith Chaiken contributed to this report.

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