By Richard Morin
The poll found that support for the Republican-held Congress has fallen the most among voters who say they are certain to vote in November, as well as among political independents -- the swing voters who are key to the outcome of congressional races around the country.
At the same time, support for Democratic candidates for the House has increased among likely voters, while the proportion currently intending to vote Republican has fallen.
These declines in congressional approval and candidate preferences are modest and perhaps temporary. But the results across a range of key questions suggest that the political climate may be a bit chillier now for many congressional incumbents and Republican House candidates than it was just a week or two ago. And the numbers offer some hope that Democrats, who just weeks ago worried about a GOP blowout in November, will be able to keep Republican gains modest, diminishing the chances of impeachment and increasing the chances that Republicans will be more willing to settle for a lesser punishment.
The survey found that Clinton is more popular now than he was before Thursday's House vote to begin impeachment proceedings. Two in three Americans -- 67 percent -- say they approve of the job that Clinton is doing as president, up from 63 percent in a Post-ABC News survey conducted in the last week of September.
Nearly half of those interviewed in the recent poll -- 48 percent -- said they "strongly" approved of the president's performance, the highest level of strong support for Clinton found by a Washington Post survey. The president even made modest gains among Republicans: 39 percent approve of the job Clinton is doing as president, up from 32 percent in September.
A total of 802 randomly selected adults were interviewed Thursday night through Saturday for the survey. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
With just over three weeks until the midterm elections, the survey contained ominous signs of public dissatisfaction with Congress overall and congressional Republicans in particular following the vote in the House to begin an impeachment inquiry.
The proportion of Americans who say they currently support the Democrat running in their congressional district is up, while the proportion favoring the Republican is down, reversing a trend that had found the GOP gaining strength in recent months.
According to the poll, the proportion of likely voters who say they intend to vote for the Democratic House candidate increased from 47 percent to 51 percent in the past two weeks. Republican support fell from 47 percent to 42 percent.
There's more bad news for Republicans, who have the most seats to protect. For the first time in months, fewer than half of the country say they approve of the job Congress is doing: 45 percent expressed support, down from 52 percent in late September. The drop is similarly large among those who said they were certain to vote in November. Among these voters, congressional approval fell from 51 percent to 43 percent since late September.
The results suggest that most of this decline occurred among Democrats and political independents. Two in three Republicans currently approve of the job Congress is doing, unchanged in recent weeks. But among Democrats, approval of Congress fell from 43 percent to 32 percent. The drop was even more precipitous among independents, with approval falling from 55 percent to 37 percent in the latest Post survey.
Perhaps more ominously for congressional incumbents, the proportion of Americans who approve of the job that their own representative is doing also has fallen. Currently, 62 percent of those interviewed said they approved of the job their representative was doing, down from 70 percent in September. Among those most likely to vote, 64 percent currently view their own representative favorably, a seven-point drop in the past two weeks. This decline, the survey found, was most pronounced among Democrats -- a hint that GOP candidates may find once-sympathetic Democrats harder to hold onto.
There were other signs that the scandal-plagued Clinton may be winning the battle for public opinion -- at least for the moment. This is a fight that White House strategists believe Clinton must win if he is to survive politically.
Just over half -- 52 percent -- of those interviewed said they trusted Clinton more than Republicans in Congress to handle the main problems confronting the nation. Barely a third -- 34 percent -- said they trusted congressional Republicans, down from 38 percent two weeks ago and the GOP's worst showing on this question since Republicans took control of Congress four years ago.
Americans are deeply divided over the decision to begin an impeachment probe, the poll found. Fewer than half -- 45 percent -- said they favored the investigation, while 52 percent said they are opposed. Seven in 10 Republicans supported the inquiry, while an equally large proportion of Democrats opposed it -- more evidence of how partisan public opinion about the White House scandal has become.
Many Americans continue to believe that both political parties have behaved badly over the issue of impeachment. But the survey suggests that the public believes Republicans are behaving worse than their Democratic colleagues.
Six in 10 respondents say they disapprove of the way that Republicans in Congress were handling the issue of impeachment. But fewer than half -- 49 percent -- were similarly critical of the way that congressional Democrats were dealing with impeachment.
Most of the public also remains suspicious that both parties will be playing politics in the upcoming impeachment investigation. But again, increasing numbers of Americans now question the motives of Republicans.
According to the survey, seven in 10 respondents -- 71 percent -- said that congressional Republicans were "mainly interested in hurting Clinton" rather than "finding out the truth," up from 66 percent two weeks ago. Half of all Republicans think GOP members are politically motivated.
The public is only slightly less suspicious about the intentions of Democrats in the upcoming hearings. About six in 10 -- 63 percent -- say Democrats in Congress were mainly interested in "protecting Clinton politically," unchanged from late September. Even a majority of Democrats say Democratic members are more interested in protecting the president.
At the same time, the poll found that support for impeachment and censure remains largely unchanged from earlier polls: About six in 10 say Clinton should not be impeached -- about the same proportion who believe he should be formally reprimanded for his relationship with onetime White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company