Voter unrest echoes that of 1994, poll shows

The Washington Post's David "The Dean" Broder looks back at the midterm elections of 1994 and 2006 when the Republican and Democratic party, respectively, won in a landslide.
By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 2:07 AM

Voters across the country are deeply unhappy with the performance of the Democratic Congress and as dissatisfied with how Washington works as they were in1994, when Republicans took control of both chambers, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The sour mood threatens the Democratic congressional majorities in Tuesday's midterm elections as more than seven in 10 voters see the country as off course, fully half of all voters describe the nation's economy as "poor" and many feel out of sync with President Obama when it comes to the proper size of government.

Among those most likely to cast ballots in their congressional districts, 49 percent say they side with the Republican candidate, 45 percent with the Democratic one. This four-point GOP edge puts Republicans in an even stronger position than they were heading into the final days of the 1994 election.

A narrow majority of likely voters, 52 percent, also disapproves of the way Obama is handling his job as president. That's the same as the percentage of Election Day 1994 voters who said they disapproved of President Clinton's performance, according to that year's exit polling.

One big but quickly dwindling opportunity for Democrats is that Obama and his party have significantly better ratings among all registered voters than they do among those now considered most likely to participate. Among all voters, Democrats hold a narrow five-point lead on the congressional vote question: 49 to 44 percent.

Among voters who are inclined to skip Tuesday's vote, Obama boasts a heartier 58 percent approval rating.

Among all registered voters, Democrats have a five-point advantage as the party more trusted to deal with the country's main problems, and they have a similar edge when it comes to handling Topic A, the economy. Democrats have even bigger, double-digit leads when it comes to empathy and better grasping the economic problems people in the country face.

But each of these Democratic advantages disappears when narrowing the focus to the most likely voters, as determined by their vote histories and how certain they say they are to vote on Tuesday.

On dealing with the nation's most pressing issues over the next few years, 45 percent of likely voters put more faith in the GOP, 41 percent in the Democrats. In October 2006 before they won back the House, Democrats had a 12-point lead on this question among likely voters. Among registered voters most likely to skip Tuesday's election, Democrats have a huge lead - 55 to 29 percent - on this question, a significant change from 1994 when likely and unlikely voters differed little on this point.

Turning advantages among fence-sitters into Election Day success, however, may be an impossible task for Democrats, a challenge compounded by the number of voters who have already cast ballots this year.

Fully 21 percent of all likely voters in the poll say they have already voted. While polls showed early voters breaking for Democratic House candidates in 2006 and for Obama by a big margin in 2008, now early voters split 47 percent for their Republican congressional candidate to 43 percent for their Democratic candidate.

Democrats say their own analysis of early vote numbers show them doing well with first-time voters from 2008 and those who vote only sporadically. But Republicans counter that whatever gains Democrats were making in mid-October have receded and that the enthusiasm gap still favors their candidates.

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