Poll: Issues Favor Dems in 2006 Elections

A year out from the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats hold an extraordinary lead in voter preferences -- but far less of an advantage in the practical elements it can take to turn an out-party's hopes into votes: leadership, anti-incumbency and a unified theme.

Opportunity is there for the Democrats: Capitalizing on George W. Bush's troubles, the party has a 12-point advantage over the Republicans in trust to handle the nation's main problems, and it leads in nine of 10 individual issues, with some huge gains from three years ago. In the 10th -- Bush's trademark, handling terrorism -- the Democrats run even.

Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.

Indeed, 55 percent of Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say they'd like to see the Democrats take control of Congress in 2006. And if the election were today, registered voters would favor the Democrat in their congressional district by 52 percent to 37 percent.

That 15-point margin is numerically the biggest for the Democrats since an ABC/Post poll in September 1984 (they ultimately lost 14 seats), although about the same as a 14-point Democratic lead in one poll in 1996 (when they gained nine).

The Democrats' advantage on issues extends to some surprising areas -- Iraq and the economy, for example -- and show striking gains from late 2002.

Which Party Do You Trust to Handle...
  Democrats Republicans
Economy   56%   34%
Social Security   56   29
Education   55   32
Health Care   54   29
Taxes   48   38
Iraq   48   37
Federal Budget   48   34
Gas Prices   47   26
Terrorism   42   42
Ethics   42   36

So does their edge in attributes: They hold a 10-point lead, 50 percent to 40 percent, as the party that "better represents your personal values."

Party Attributes
  Democrats Republicans
Is more open to ideas of political moderates   60%   24%
Is more concerned with needs of people like you   56   33
Better represents your values   50   40
Has stronger leaders   35   51

But a year can be a millennium in political terms, and midterm elections are far more complicated than a single popularity contest. With incumbent re-election rates usually over 90 percent, it takes a nationalized congressional election -- with a differentiated, unifying theme and anti-incumbent sentiment -- to create real change. The template is the Republicans' realigning election of 1994, when they gained 52 House seats and the control they still enjoy today.

Those elements, thus far, are lacking for 2006. Sixty percent of Americans approve of the work their own representative is doing (compared with 49 percent in October 1994). Despite trailing virtually everywhere else, the Republicans hold a 16-point advantage, 51 percent to 35 percent, as the party that has stronger leaders. And Republicans are more unified behind their party's leadership than are Democrats behind theirs.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for the Democrats is differentiation: Even with their edge on issues, just 44 percent of Americans say the Democrats are offering the country a clear direction that's different from the Republicans. (And notably, just 38 percent of independents say so.) That suggests that the current state of play says more about Republican weaknesses than Democratic strengths.

Bush

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