What voters are saying
The congressional midterm elections are nearly three months away. Several nonpartisan political handicappers, however, have been making some uncharacteristically definitive statements — for this stage of the campaign, at least — about the likely outcomes.
“All things being equal, if current trends continue, the Democrats take the House,” Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, told The Washington Post, adding: “That’s a pretty strong statement for August.” Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, warned in a recent National Journal column: “Time is running out for Republicans. Unless something dramatic happens before Election Day, Democrats will take control of the House. And chances that they’ll seize the Senate are rising toward 50-50.” After three-term Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman became only the third elected senator to lose a primary in more than a quarter-century, Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for Mr. Cook, told the New York Times: “All signs are pointing to an anti-status-quo election.” With Democrats needing to gain 15 seats to achieve majority control of the House, she observed: “Can Democrats win the House is no longer the valid question. The question is whether Republicans can do anything about it.”
Above and beyond the baggage of President Bush’s low approval ratings that Republicans must carry into the fall, several recent polls offer a host of other reasons why the Republicans are in trouble:
On the critical “right direction/wrong track” question, the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll reports that only 28 percent “feel things in this country are generally going in the right direction,” while 66 percent of Americans believe “things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track.” These numbers are worse than the 30-65 “right direction/wrong track” division that prevailed just before the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans gained 52 seats in the House and won control of both chambers of Congress. Particularly worrisome for Republicans is the fact that 70 percent of self-described independents, who comprise 30 percent of the adult population, said the country was “on the wrong track.”
On the crucial “generic ballot” question, 52 percent told The Washington Post/ABC News Poll that they would vote for the Democratic candidate for the House in their district, while only 39 percent said they would vote for the Republican candidate. The margin in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll was 48 percent to 38 percent in favor of the Democrat. That 10point advantage also prevailed in the NYT/CBS poll (45 percent to 35 percent), which further reported that independents favored Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 36 percent to 24 percent.
Democrats support their party’s candidate by an 85-point margin (88-3), a solid 15-point advantage, compared to the 70percentage-point margin attributed to Republicans (79-9). According to a NYT/CBS poll conducted one week before the 1994 elections, Republicans enjoyed a 46-41 advantage over Democrats in the “generic ballot.” In the 2002 midterm elections, when Republicans won eight more House seats than they won in 2000, the parties were essentially even in the “generic ballot.”
By margins of 60-25 (WSJ/NBC), 5828 (NYT/CBS) and 60-36 (WP/ABC), the public disapproves of the way the Republican-controlled Congress is handling its job. Independents (NYT/CBS) disapprove by a 37-point margin (61-24). Before the 1994 elections, Congress’s job disapproval ratings were 63-25 (NYT/CBS) and 72-21 (WP/ABC).
Today, 43 percent of the public has a favorable opinion of the Republican Party, while 51 percent view the party unfavorably. In direct contrast, 51 percent view the Democratic Party favorably, and 41 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party, according to the NYT/CBS poll. Twelve years ago, just before the 1994 election, Republicans had a 54-39 favorability advantage, while Democrats were viewed favorably by 44 percent and unfavorably by 48 percent.
The NYT/CBS poll asked people if they thought of their vote for Congress this fall as “a vote for George W. Bush” (14 percent said “for”) or as “a vote against George W. Bush” (33 percent said “against”). Forty-eight percent said their vote would not be about the president. Immediately preceding the 2002 midterm election, 31 percent said their congressional vote would be a vote “for” the president and only 19 percent said “against.” Thus, a 12-point “for-the-president” advantage in 2002 has turned into a 19-point “against-the-president” deficit now.
By a margin of 57-27, people told NYT/CBS that they approved of the job their representative was doing in the House. By historical standards, the 57percent approval rating is at the low end. More worrisome for Republicans is the fact that the disapproval rating of 27 percent is 10 points higher than the September 1994 disapproval rating (17 percent), which preceded the tsunami that defeated 34 incumbent House Democrats (and zero GOP incumbents), sweeping Democrats from power on Capitol Hill. The WP/ABC poll reported a 37-point disapproval rating for representatives. In late October 1994, the disapproval rating for representatives was a nearly identical 38 percent in the WP/ABC poll.
Adding to Republican concerns must be the WSJ/NBC finding that only 38 percent of registered voters said their representative “deserves to be reelected,” while 48 percent said “it is time to give a new person a chance.” This ratio almost precisely mirrors the October 1994 poll results of 49-39 in favor of “giv[ing] a new person a chance.”
What about November turnout, which will undoubtedly prove to be pivotal but which is always the most difficult variable to predict, particularly in August? Nevertheless, Mr. Cook, citing the WSJ/NBC survey and polling he has commissioned from RT Strategies, reports that “Democrats were much more interested” in the upcoming elections. “We are approaching the point where most Democrats can’t wait to vote, and some Republicans are embarrassed about voting,” RT Strategies pollster Thom Riehle told Mr. Cook. “The effect of lopsided partisan interest in voting is magnified in low-turnout midterms, such as in 1974 and 1994,” when 36 Republican and 34 Democratic incumbents, respectively, were defeated.