Poll: Democrats Hold Slightly Narrowed Lead

Democrats head to Election Day with a continued advantage in voter preference, fueled by discontent with the war in Iraq and broad unhappiness with George W. Bush and the Republican-led Congress alike.

The president's party may have gained back some ground: The Democrats' lead among likely voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll is perhaps a bit narrower than its recent level, unseen in congressional elections since post-Watergate 1974 and 1976.

Still, discontent remains impressive. Just 40 percent of Americans approve of George W. Bush's job performance, the lowest for a president heading into a midterm election since Harry Truman in 1950, when his party lost 29 seats in Congress. Ronald Reagan's rating in 1982 was 42 percent, similar to Bush's now; that year the Republicans lost 26 seats.

Among registered voters, 60 percent disapprove of the way the Republican-led Congress is handling its job, 59 percent say the country is headed in the wrong direction and 53 percent say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting. A majority hasn't backed the war in two years.

Fifty-three percent of registered voters in this poll support Democratic candidates for Congress, while 43 percent support Republicans. Among likely voters it's 51-45 percent, less broad than the Democrats' double-digit advantage in the last ABC/Post poll, but still sufficient for change: Republicans won the national House vote by seven points in 1994, the year they gained 52 seats and took control of Congress.

The Democrats' advantage is remarkable in what has been mostly a 50/50 nation. The national vote for House, in the last four elections has been, stated as Democrat-Republican, 47-49 percent, 45-50 percent, 47-47 percent, and 47-48 percent.

2006 Vote Preference (Among Registered Voters)
  Democratic Candidate Republican Candidate
1/26/06   54%   38%
4/9/06   55%   40%
5/15/06   52%   40%
6/25/06   52%   39%
8/6/06   52%   39%
9/7/06   50%   42%
10/8/06   54%   41%
10/22/06   54%   41%
11/4/06   53%   43%

Republican candidates are doing better in groups where some late improvement might be expected -- for example, among married men, previously undecided independents and people who say their financial situation has improved in the last year. They also get some help from a sense, expressed by nearly half of registered voters, that the Democrats have not offered clear policy alternatives.

Married women, a changeable group that House Republicans won by nine points in 2004, split about evenly now. Democrats lead among independents, classic swing voters, by a still-hefty 56-38 percent; it was 59-31 percent among independents in the last ABC/Post poll Oct. 22.

Very few registered or likely voters -- just two or three percent -- are undecided in this survey. Undecideds are a product of polling technique; other polls in the past few days have had them as high as eight percent of likely voters.

The generic congressional horse race captures attitudes nationally, but doesn't predict how candidates will fare in individual state- and district-level races. The mood is not broadly anti-incumbent; 56 percent of registered voters approve of their own representative's job performance. Fewer, as low as 49 percent, approved of their own representative shortly before the 1994 election.

While 59 percent say the country's on the wrong track, this too was worse -- 69 percent -- just before Congress changed hands in 1994. It was worse still in 1992, when economic discontent pushed Bush's father out of office.

One continuing trend is in the level of anti-Bush voting this year: Registered voters by nearly a 2-1 margin, 31 to 17 percent, say they're casting their vote to show opposition to Bush rather than to show support for him. (The rest, 50 percent, say he isn't a factor.) 1998 is a stark contrast: Then, even in the height of the Lewinsky scandal, just nine percent said they were voting to show opposition to Bill Clinton.

Anti-Bush Voting
 
Will one reason for your vote for Congress be to:  
Express support for Bush   17%
Express opposition to Bush   31%
Bush not a factor   50%

Anti-Bush sentiment extends to his party; registered voters are nine points more likely to say most Democrats deserve re-election than to say most Republicans do. Still, the number who say most Democrats deserve re-election has ebbed somewhat; campaign criticisms may have taken some toll.

War

The public's most prominent complaint is the war in Iraq: Asked, open-ended, why they say the country's going in the wrong direction, three in 10 registered voters cite the war, putting it far and away first. About half as many, 16 percent, raise economic concerns; 12 percent mention corruption or general distrust of politicians; 11 percent cite problems with Bush.

Similarly, 31 percent call the war in Iraq the most important issue in their vote; 21 percent say it's the economy; 12 percent health care; and about as many, 11 percent, cite terrorism. That's different than 2002, when the economy and terrorism shared top billing, and 2004, when it was terrorism, Iraq and the economy bunched together.

The change hurts the Republicans. Among people who call terrorism their No. 1 issue, Republican candidates lead by nearly 60 points, 77-19 percent. Among the many more who call Iraq their top issue, by contrast, Democratic candidates lead, 73-26 percent.

Although it doesn't seem to hurt them among Iraq voters, Democrats have slipped a bit on another Iraq gauge: Registered voters break evenly on whom they trust more to handle the situation in Iraq, the Democrats or the Republicans, 42-42 percent. It was a 48-40 percent Democratic lead last month.

That may stem from the lack of consensus on whether the Democrats are offering the country a clear direction that's different from the Republicans: Registered voters divide, 49-47 percent, on whether that's the case. It matters: Leaving aside partisans, among independent voters who see a clear Democratic direction, Democrats for House lead by 72-23 percent. By contrast, independents who don't see a new course from the Democrats divide, 44-50 percent, in their vote preference.

Another question is whether the Democrats were hurt by a comment last week by Sen. John Kerry that some took as disrespectful to veterans. In this poll military veterans split 42-51 percent (Dem.-Rep.) for House; in an early October ABC/Post poll, it was essentially the same, 40-51 percent.

Vote Preference by Top Issue
  Democratic candidate Republican candidate
Iraq voters   73%   26%
Economy voters   54%   42%
Terrorism voters   19%   77%

If the Democrats don't show direct damage from the Kerry remark, neither do the Republicans show direct damage from recent scandals that have touched their party. In this poll registered voters divide by 48-44 percent on whether the Democrats or the Republicans better represent their personal values. That compares with 51-39 percent in an early October poll and 50-41 percent in a poll done a year ago.

Evangelical white Protestants, a core Republican group sometimes identified with the term "values," favor Republicans for House by 64-31 percent margin. That compares with a 74-25 percent vote for Republicans among this group in the 2004 exit poll.

Economy

Despite recent positive economic trends, the Republicans show little if any improvement among economy voters; they break by 54-42 percent for Democratic candidates in this survey, compared with a similar 57-39 percent last week.

The GOP does much better, with 70 percent support, among the roughly one-quarter of Americans who say they're getting ahead financially. That is perhaps up, albeit within sampling error, from 64 percent last month.

It's not necessarily surprising that the economy isn't providing more of a boost to the president's party. Clearly a bad economy is political poison; but a good one, much less a great one, doesn't reliably accrue to the in-party's benefit. (Ask Al Gore.)

Get Out the Vote, But Will It Count?

Another factor on Tuesday is the parties' get-out-the-vote efforts: Four in 10 registered voters say they've been contacted recently on a candidate's behalf, up from three in 10 two weeks ago. And it could be that the Republicans' vaunted machine is a bit better turned: Among those who've been contacted, three in 10 say they've been asked only to vote for a Republican, two in 10 only for a Democrat. The rest have been approached by both sides.

Vote Preference by Party Ideology
  Democratic Candidate Republican Candidate
Democrats   95%   4%
Independents   56%   38%
Republicans   6%   89%
Liberals   83%   13%
Moderates   62%   33%
Conservatives   24%   73%

Registered voters, finally, do not express broad doubts about the vote count on Tuesday, but neither is their confidence supreme -- perhaps not surprising, given news coverage of potential problems with new electronic voting systems. Eighty-four percent are confident their own votes will be counted accurately, but just 49 percent are "very confident" of that. Among likely voters more, 56 percent, are very confident in the vote count.

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Nov. 1-4, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,205 adults, including 1,037 who identified themselves as registered voters. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

Click here for PDF version with full questionnaire and results.

ABC News polls can be found at ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollvault.html.

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