Voter unrest echoes that of 1994, poll shows

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.

The Democrats' highest hurdle in the final hours will be motivating their voters. While Obama has warned repeatedly that a Republican majority in Congress would have devastating consequences for the country, barely more than half of all Democrats in the poll see a GOP takeover as a "bad thing," little changed from the beginning of the month.

While 70 percent of liberal Democrats say a Republican Congress would be a negative, just 43 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats agree. In fact, a majority of moderate and conservative Democrats say GOP control would either be a good thing (13 percent) or wouldn't make any difference (42 percent).

On the other side, more than three quarters of all Republicans, 76 percent, say it would be a "good thing" if their party took back control of Congress.

Among voters who are likely to sit out Tuesday's election, 52 percent say a GOP takeover would make no difference. About equal numbers say that such a change would be a good development or a bad one, 23 and 21 percent, respectively.

Democrats are making a major 11th-hour push to engage potential voters in the campaign. But so far, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they have been contacted in person, by telephone or by e-mail by someone asking for their vote (38 to 31 percent). That is a reversal from the last week of the 2006 campaign, when more Democrats than Republicans said they had been contacted.

Labor unions are again spearheading a major get-out-the-vote drive for Democrats around the country, but if current patterns hold, voters from union households will end up splitting their votes more evenly this year than they have in recent elections. In the new poll, likely voters from union households divide 54 to 42 percent in the Democrats' favor. In 2006, according to exit polling, these voters went for Democrats by a nearly 2 to 1 - 64 to 34 percent.

The Post-ABC poll shows some significant shifts among key groups of voters since the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008.

Independent and other voters not affiliated with major parties went for Democratic House candidates by a historic 18-point margin in 2006, but those now likely to vote break for the GOP by nine points. Women, who have sided with Democrats by an average of nine points in congressional elections back to the 1970s, now divide straight down the middle. White Catholic likely voters, another important swing group, go for Republican congressional candidates by a 55 to 38 percent margin, which would be the GOP's best showing among these voters since 1994.

Many of these shifts may be due to changes in the composition of the electorate this year. In all, 86 percent of those who say they backed the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008 say they are certain to vote on Tuesday (or already have). Among those who pulled the lever for Obama and Joe Biden, 72 percent say they are sure to participate.

Heading into the election two years ago, 48 percent of likely voters said they preferred a a candidate who would chart a new direction and present new ideas rather than one who projected strength and experience. That number is about the same now, 49 percent. But in 2008, 90 percent of "change voters" backed Obama; today, 57 percent side with the GOP.

The enthusiasm among Republicans stems partly from their perception that Obama takes a different view on the scope of the federal government.

The vast majority of Republicans - 88 percent - say they would prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services. Nearly as many - 83 percent - say Obama favors a larger one that does more.

Moreover, in the new poll, more voters - 50 to 37 percent - worry the Democrats will put in place too many government regulations than worry the Republicans will not enact sufficient regulations.

While nearly half of all voters - and about half of Republicans - say Obama is not a factor in their choice for Congress, voter preferences line up neatly with assessments of the president. Nearly nine in 10 who approve of the president's job performance support Democrats on the House vote question, and the same proportion of those who disapprove of his job performance back Republicans.

But Obama appears significantly less toxic overall than former president George W. Bush was two and four years ago. Not only is Obama's approval rating higher than Bush's was, voters are as likely today to say a reason for their vote will be to express support for the president as they are to say it will be to show opposition to him. In 2006, Bush repelled about twice as many voters as he attracted.

Opposition to Bush in 2006 and 2008 also gave Democratic voters a reason to vote. So, too, did overwhelming Democratic dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, the No. 1 issue in the previous midterm election. The current top issue, the economy, provides significantly less clarity. Only 39 percent of Democrats in the poll see the nation's economy as "getting better," despite their party's control of both houses of Congress and the presidency.

For the first time since the start of the Obama presidency, a majority of moderate or conservative Democrats now see the country as pretty seriously on the wrong track.

One change that may save some Democratic incumbents on Tuesday is that most liberal Democrats say they are inclined to re-elect their own congressional representatives, marking the first time all year that a majority has said so.

The poll was conducted by telephone October 25 to 28, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,202 adults, including 1,015 registered voters and 786 likely voters. The results for the sample of likely voters is plus or minus four percentage points.

Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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