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Poll: Democrats regain clear advantage in midterms shaping up as referendum on President Trump

With Democratic optimism on the rise for a "blue wave" in 2018, here's their strategy for winning more state and national seats than Republicans. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Two months ahead of the midterm elections, Democrats hold a clear advantage over Republicans in congressional vote support, with antipathy toward President Trump fueling Democratic enthusiasm, even among those in the party who stayed home four years ago, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds.

The survey also points to broad unrest and frustration with the political system generally. More than 6 in 10 Americans say Trump and the Republican Party are out of touch with most people in the country. While Democrats fare better, a narrower 51 percent majority also judged them out of touch.

Registered voters say they favor the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate in their district by 52 percent to 38 percent. That is a marked increase from the four-point edge in an April Post-ABC poll but similar to the 12-point advantage Democrats enjoyed in January.

Because of the overall makeup of congressional districts, analysts have long said that Democrats would need a clear advantage on this “generic ballot” question, and in the national popular vote for the House, if they hope to flip the 23 seats needed to take control. The Post-ABC poll puts Democrats in a stronger position today than some other recent surveys, which showed them with an edge of about eight points on this measure.

[Read full poll results | How the poll was conducted ]

Self-identified Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are slightly more likely than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents to say they are absolutely certain to vote, by 80 percent to 74 percent.

Four years ago, when Republicans made gains in the midterm elections, the GOP enjoyed a 10-point advantage on this question in Post-ABC surveys that fall, 71 percent to 61 percent. The latest survey also asked whether people had voted in 2014, and among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who say they did not, 63 percent say they are absolutely certain to vote in November.

The past three midterm elections — 2006, 2010 and 2014 — produced substantial losses for the party that held the White House. In 2006, Republicans lost control of the House, but they regained it four years later. In 2014, they captured control of the Senate. Trump’s victory in 2016 gave them full control of the executive and legislative branches.

Presidential approval has become a strong indicator of which party voters will support in midterm elections. More than 8 in 10 voters who disapprove of a president’s performance have backed opposition party candidates in recent midterm elections.

In the Post-ABC poll, more than 8 in 10 voters who approve of Trump support Republicans, while more than 8 in 10 of Trump disapprovers support Democrats. Given Trump’s current ratings, this puts Republicans at a clear disadvantage heading toward November.

Through most of his presidency, Trump’s approval ratings have been generally stable. His current average in surveys polling random samples of registered voters since mid-August is about 42 percent, which includes the results from the Post-ABC poll. Republicans know they will be exceedingly vulnerable in November if the president is not able to improve his standing over the next two months.

Ironically, the GOP’s weak position comes even as 58 percent of Americans say the economy is excellent or good, tying ratings from January as the most positive marks in 17 years. The fact that many Republicans are worried about whether they can hold the House during a time of positive economic assessments underscores how much Trump’s unpopularity has undermined the party’ greatest asset as fall campaigning begins.

The 38 percent minority of voters who rate the economy as “not so good” or “poor” favor Democrats over Republicans at 70 to 20 percent, a 50-point margin. But Republicans hold only a seven-point advantage with the majority of voters who view the economy positively, 49 to 42 percent.

Trump is a key factor in the asymmetry. Nearly half of voters who are upbeat about the economy still disapprove of the president’s job performance. Among this group, Democrats lead Republicans by a lopsided 74-point margin in congressional vote preferences, 83 percent to 9 percent.

When asked whether they would rather have Democrats control Congress “as a check on Trump” or a Republican-controlled Congress “to support Trump’s agenda,” 60 percent of voters say they prefer having Democrats in control. In July 2017, that figure was 52 percent, at a time when Trump’s job ratings were almost identical to today.

Meanwhile, 59 percent of voters say it is extremely or very important for them to support a candidate who shares their opinion of Trump, a figure that has grown seven points since April. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans say they are seeking candidates with similar views of the president, suggesting that Trump is a motivator for both his supporters and his opponents.

The gender gap in views of Trump continues to be a key factor looking ahead to the fall campaign, with the Post-ABC poll finding 66 percent of female registered voters disapproving of Trump, including 59 percent who disapprove “strongly.” Among men, 52 percent disapprove, 45 percent strongly.

Vote preferences show a similar divide, with men basically split in support for Democratic or Republican House candidates, but women favoring Democrats by 58 percent to 33 percent, a 25-point margin. Women are also nine points more likely than men to say it’s important for congressional candidates to share their views on Trump.

Americans sense high stakes for the November elections, which could boost turnout from a half-century low point in 2014. Nearly two-thirds of registered voters say it is more important to vote now than in past midterms. Democratic-leaning voters are more likely than Republican-leaning voters to say that voting this fall is more important than in previous midterm years, by 75 percent to 57 percent.

A Democratic takeover of the House would break unified Republican control of the federal government and give lawmakers substantial power to launch investigations of the Trump administration on a range of fronts.

Many Democrats have avoided talking about their intentions on whether to pursue impeachment proceedings that could remove Trump from office, while some Republicans, including Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, have warned that Democrats would try to impeach the president.

Go inside a Florida survey center as the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll is conducted. (Video: Lee Powell, John Parks/The Washington Post)

The Post-ABC poll finds that 72 percent of adults think the Democrats would seek to impeach the president if they were in power in the House, including 79 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats. However, the country is closely divided on the question of whether Congress should begin such proceedings — 49 percent are in favor and 46 percent opposed. The gap between the support for impeachment proceedings and the wider perception that Democrats would undertake them could be a liability for Democratic candidates in November.

Both parties have sought to take advantage on the issue of immigration, with Democrats hoping to exploit Trump’s now-rescinded policy of separating parents and children at the border, while Republicans are casting Democrats as weak on immigration and favoring “open borders” that have led to increased gang crime.

The Post-ABC poll finds a 56 percent majority of adults overall think Trump is “too harsh” in dealing with illegal immigration, while about 3 in 10 think he’s handled it about right and 1 in 10 say he is “not tough enough.” Asked how Democrats would govern if they won control of Congress, 47 percent think they would handle illegal immigration about right, but 43 percent think they would not be tough enough and only 4 percent believe they would be too harsh.

Trade also looms over the fall campaign, with U.S. agriculture and other industries expecting to take an economic hit from escalating trade disputes with China and other countries. The Post-ABC poll finds that 41 percent of the public supports the tariffs Trump placed on some goods imported to the United States, while 50 percent oppose them.

On the broader question of who is or is not in touch with the American people, the perception of the president and the GOP has changed little since the early days of Trump’s presidency, with 63 percent saying each are out of touch. At the same time, 51 percent say the Democrats are out of touch with most people; in April 2017, it was 67 percent who thought that was the case.

This Post-ABC poll was conducted Aug. 26-29 among a national random sample of 1,003 adults including 879 registered voters. The overall results have an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, while the sample of registered voters has an error margin of plus or minus four points.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.