GOP Advantage Eases, but Still Large, as Economic Optimism Shows a Pulse

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A gargantuan Republican advantage in the midterm elections subsided to merely a broad one in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, with the Democrats clawing back some support, in tandem with an incipient sense that the economy at last may be turning the corner.

A month before Election Day, 31 percent of Americans say the economy's improving -- far from a majority, but 7 points more than a month ago and among the most since the financial crisis of fall 2008. Dissatisfaction with the federal government, closely related to economic discontent, also has eased by 7 points, albeit to a still-high 71 percent.

It's hardly a sea change: anti-incumbency and disapproval of Congress remain enormous. Republicans still are more charged up; they're 16 points more apt than Democrats to say they're certain to vote next month. And the ABC News Frustration Index, a strong predictor of election outcomes, stands at 68 on its scale of 100, well in the danger zone for incumbent politicians.

In congressional vote preference, likely voters now divide by 49-43 percent for the Republican vs. the Democratic candidate in their district. That's eased from a remarkable 53-40 percent last month, the largest GOP lead since ABC/Post polling began in 1982.

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Still, the Republicans hold a sizable and unusual lead, bigger than they enjoyed at this time in 1994, when they last seized control of Congress. Notable in this poll, produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates, is the GOP's 20-point advantage among independent likely voters, who favor Republican candidates by 53-33 percent.

Last month's overall 13-point Republican advantage among all likely voters may have been so big as to be unsustainable; nonetheless, their move off that peak puts the Democrats back in the game -- or at least within sight of the ballpark -- for what's sure to be a frenetic last month of campaigning -- and, especially, of get-out-the vote machinations.

ECONOMY -- The gain in economic expectations makes things a little less ugly for the Democrats because likely voters who say the economy is improving favor Democrats for Congress by 75-19 percent; those who say it's getting worse favor Republican candidates by 70-22 percent. In this poll there are 7 points more of the former (the better group for Democrats), and 6 points fewer of the latter (the better group for Republicans) than last month. Those who say the economy is staying the same, however, also favor GOP candidates, by 52-39 percent.

And the same is not good; ratings of current economic conditions have not improved. Ninety percent say the economy is in bad shape (it was 92 percent last month). That vastly negative rating helps explain why the Obama administration's economic stimulus gets so little applause: By more than 2-1, 68 percent to 29 percent, Americans are far more apt to say that money was wasted rather than well-spent.

It appears an improving economy would help this view. Among people who think the economy's getting better, 56 percent say the stimulus money was well-spent. But among those who think it's staying the same or getting worse, many more -- 73 and 89 percent, respectively -- think all that stimulus spending was mostly wasted.

TEA and PLEDGES -- The economy is not the sole factor to watch; another is the Tea Party political movement, whose influence looks to have faded. In July, 30 percent of registered voters said they'd be more apt to support a candidate if he or she were affiliated with the Tea Party. Today, with its candidates nominated and under scrutiny, that's dropped to 18 percent. Opposition to such candidates, meanwhile, has held about steady at 28 percent, meaning Tea Party affiliation has gone from a neutral factor to a net negative. (The numbers are very similar among likely voters.)

Overall 40 percent of Americans say they support the Tea Party (13 percent strongly), while 47 percent oppose it (18 percent strongly); among likely voters this goes to an even split. Regardless, there's widespread skepticism its candidates would be able to change the culture of Washington -- 32 percent say so, 63 percent not.

At the same time, Tea Party supporters retain a big edge in commitment. Among registered voters who strongly support the movement, 92 percent say they're certain to vote next month. Voting intention drops to two-thirds of those who support it somewhat, or oppose it.

The GOP "Pledge to America," meanwhile, is showing no traction: just 34 percent of Americans say they've heard about it, and among those who have, 29 percent say it makes them less apt to support Republican candidates, vs. 23 percent more likely. The rest say it'll make no difference.

More likely voters have heard of the pledge, 46 percent. But they only divide evenly on whether it's a positive or negative motivator.

TURNOUT -- What is working for the Republicans, above all, is a motivated base. Among all registered voters the Democrats lead in congressional vote preference, 47-43 percent. That switches to a Republican advantage among likely voters because of GOP supporters' greater propensity to say they'll turn out. Seventy-seven percent of Republican registered voters say they're absolutely certain to vote. Among Democratic registered voters that falls to 61 percent.

In another sign of their increased motivation, three-quarters of Republicans (74 percent) call this election more important than other congressional elections in their lifetimes; in 2006, just 49 percent said so -- a vast change. (Two-thirds of Democrats and independents alike also express this view -- unchanged among Democrats, but up markedly among independents vs. 2006.)

The Republicans' advantage is not assured, however, in part because it relies on their 20-point advantage among independents -- and while that's the quintessential swing-voting group, it's also one whose turnout is difficult to ensure.

All this ties in with the ABC News Frustration Index, based on views of the economy, the president's job performance, anti-incumbency and dissatisfaction with the way the government's operating. While below its peak, 80 in 2008, at 68 the index is higher now than it was at this time in 1994 (63) or 2006 (62), the last two times control of Congress switched hands. The index, moreover, currently is 70 among likely voters, and 85 among Republicans -- underscoring their motivation to wrest away the "change" mantra that President Obama wielded in 2008.

OBAMA -- Obama, for his part, remains below majority approval, albeit slightly: fifty percent of Americans approve of his job performance, 47 percent disapprove. This had gone negative for him last month for the first time in ABC/Post polls, 46-52 percent.

Nonetheless strength of sentiment is still against the president, with 34 percent strongly disapproving of his work overall, vs. 26 percent who strongly approve. Among likely voters, moreover, his approval rating worsens to 45-53 percent. And on the economy, 53 percent of all Americans disapprove, as do 58 percent of likely voters.

IRE AWAY -- If other examples of the public's ire are required, they're here in abundance. Consider:

    A mere 24 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job, while 73 percent disapprove. That's 7 points from the lowest congressional approval ever measured in ABC/Post polls, in spring 1992. Sixty-one percent disapprove, specifically, of the way the Democrats in Congress are performing -- and 67 percent disapprove of the Republicans there.

    Fifty-one percent approve of their own Congress member's performance, well below the average, 61 percent, in ABC/Post polls since 1989, and near the lows -- 47 percent in 1992, 49 percent in 1994 and again last month. And it's not a saving grace: only 31 percent of registered voters are inclined to re-elect their representative, up 5 points from its low in July but still a very weak reading. Fifty-five percent are inclined, instead, to look around for someone else. It's the same among likely voters.

    While dissatisfaction with the government has eased to 71 percent, that's still very high -- essentially the same as at this point in 1994. (The top was 81 percent in 1992, just before then-President George Bush lost re-election in a firestorm of economic unhappiness.) And 25 percent are downright angry with the government, unchanged from last month and matching the high, again set in fall 1992.

ISSUES and CHANGE -- The GOP is numerically ahead among likely voters in trust to handle most key issues, and clearly leads on three -- taxes, the deficit and the main problems the nation faces. (The Democrats lead in one, trust to protect the middle class -- but they also did in fall 1994, and lost Congress nonetheless.) More broadly, the GOP holds a sizable advantage among likely voters in views of which party has the best ideas on the right size and role of government -- 51 percent to 37 percent -- a fruitful argument for the Republicans.

Another issue finds the public typically divided: a 47-48 percent split (support-oppose) on health care reform, with sharp partisanship. (Among opponents of reform, three-quarters would like to see the law canceled, either in Congress or the courts.) But this is another issue on which likely voters are different: They oppose the reform legislation by 55-42 percent.

In a sign of openness to change, Americans by 38-27 percent say it would be a good thing rather than a bad thing if the GOP took control of Congress -- and among likely voters, that widens to a 46-29 percent margin. Meanwhile there's pushback on the Democrats' warnings of a return to the unpopular days of George W. Bush: overall the public by 49-42 percent thinks a Republican-led Congress would take the country in a new direction, rather than returning to Bush's policies. (On this, the result is similar among likely voters, 53-41 percent.)

Ideological ratings show a shortfall on all sides. Fewer than half of Americans think candidates of either major party, or the Tea Party, are about right ideologically. Forty-eight percent call the Democrats either too liberal or two conservative (38 percent and 10 percent, respectively). Fifty-three percent call the Republicans either too conservative or too liberal (35 and 18 percent). And the Tea Party stacks up similarly to the GOP.

THE BIG ONES -- At the end, on the national level, two key factors are driving this election. One is the economy's perceived direction. The other, motivation among Republicans to make the contest a thumbs-down referendum on the Obama administration more broadly.

While voter preferences now are less bad for the Democrats than they were a month ago, a sharp and highly unusual difference between likely voters vs. all registered voters remains, and continues to work powerfully for the GOP. Whether the party peaked too early is the question that will be answered in a month.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. This survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y, with sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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

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