Republicans entered the final week of the midterm campaign holding higher ground than Democrats, aided by public dissatisfaction with President Obama’s leadership, the direction of the country and the federal government’s ability to deal with major problems, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Driving attitudes is a pervasive sense of a nation in trouble. Overwhelming majorities say the country is badly off track and give the economy negative ratings. Economic expectations are little better today than they were at this time four years ago.
Six in 10 say they cannot trust the government in Washington to do what is right — the same as a year ago in the aftermath of the government shutdown and the botched rollout of the federal Web site for the Affordable Care Act.
With multiple crises confronting the country — including the spread of Ebola in West Africa and cases here at home, as well as threats from Islamic State militants — a majority now says the government’s ability to deal with big problems has declined in the past few years. Among those who say this, more — by 3 to 1 — blame Obama and the Democrats than fault Republicans in Congress.
The disgruntlement appears to be coloring public interest in the 2014 campaign, which has been marked by an unprecedented amount of money spent by candidates and, especially, outside groups. Voters in states with competitive Senate races have been barraged with negative ads that began running early this year and now clog local newscasts.
The survey highlights that there is less interest in this midterm campaign than there was in the 2010 and 2006 elections — 2 in 3 people say they are closely following the election this year, compared with 3 in 4 who were doing the same in 2010. Just 22 percent of voters say they have been contacted by an individual or organization regarding the congressional campaign, 12 percentage points lower than at this time four years ago.
Republicans appear to have more enthusiasm about voting, based on those who say they are certain to vote. And more people who voted for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 say they are closely following the midterms, compared with those who say they voted for Obama. Democrats are hoping to counter that enthusiasm gap with a get-out-the-vote operation that is aimed at persuading sporadic voters to cast ballots.
When asked whether they will vote for the Democrat or the Republican in their House districts, 50 percent of likely voters say the Republican and 44 percent say the Democrat. Among the larger universe of registered voters, Democrats have an edge — 47 percent to 44 percent. That swing of nine points between registered and likely voters is identical to the difference recorded at this point in 2010.
The Republican advantage among likely voters translated into a gain of 63 House seats for the party in 2010. This year, expectations for GOP pickups are more modest, largely because there are far fewer competitive districts and fewer opportunities for the GOP.
Still, in many respects the potential 2014 electorate looks much like that of 2010, based on a comparison with exit polls from four years ago. Among Democrats and Republicans, more than 9 in 10 again say they plan to vote for the House candidate of their party next week. Among independents, Republicans hold a sizable advantage, as they did four years ago. Men favor Republicans by double digits, while women favor Democrats by mid-single digits.
The real battle is over control of the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to become the majority party in the upper chamber. At this point, they are heavily favored to pick up three of those six, with good opportunities to win seven Democratic-held seats — in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina. But Republicans are fighting to hold on to three seats of their own, in Georgia, Kansas and possibly Kentucky.
The new Post-ABC News poll offers only general clues about the Senate races in those states, many of which tilt toward Republicans in presidential elections. In nine states with competitive Senate races, 57 percent of voters express a preference for Republicans in the House elections, compared with 39 percent for Democrats.
There is more confidence today than in September that Republicans will win enough seats to claim the Senate majority, although this is not predictive of the outcome. Nearly 7 in 10 Republicans say a GOP majority would be a good thing, while half of Democrats say it would be a bad thing.
In many of the states with competitive Senate races, other public polls have found that Obama’s approval is below his national numbers, creating a drag on Democratic candidates.
The new Post-ABC survey puts Obama’s overall national approval rating at 43 percent, up a statistically insignificant three points from two weeks ago. His disapproval remains unchanged, at 51 percent. The view of his handling of the economy is 42 percent positive, 52 percent negative, roughly the same as it has been this fall.
Obama has begun to campaign on behalf of gubernatorial candidates, but he has avoided appearances in states with genuinely competitive Senate races. In those states, the candidates are seeking to put distance between themselves and the president, despite voting records strongly supporting the White House.
More than half of voters say that the president will not be a factor in their vote. But among those who say he will be, the percentage who say they will use their vote to express opposition to the president is 10 points higher than the share who say they want to send a message of support for him.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Thursday through Sunday among a random national sample of 1,204 adults, including interviews on conventional and cellular phones. The overall margin of sampling error is three percentage points. The error margin is 3.5 points for the sample of 968 registered voters and four points for the sample of 758 likely voters.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.