The Republican Party has grown dramatically more competitive in public trust to handle the country's most pressing issues, capitalizing on seething economic discontent and doubt about President Obama's performance to challenge the Democrats in midterm election preferences.
Among registered voters in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, 48 percent say they'd support the Republican candidate in their congressional district if the midterm elections were today, 45 percent the Democrat. That's a rare level of GOP support in nearly three decades of polls.
Other measures also have tightened sharply since fall. Among all Americans, the Democrats' lead in trust to handle the country's main problems has dwindled to a slim 6 points, 43-37 percent, down from 33 points – a record in a generation of polls – after Barack Obama's election.
Disapproval of Congress, at 71 percent, matches its highest since 1994, when the GOP swept to control in a midterm rout of the Democrats. Americans by a 20-point margin say they're inclined to look around for someone new to support for Congress. And by a 13-point margin, 48 to 35 percent, Americans call themselves anti-incumbent rather than pro-incumbent – not quite the levels in 1994 or 2006 (when the Democrats regained control) but broad nonetheless.
Negative economic views are closely associated with anti-incumbency and a preference for Republican candidates alike. With 9.7 percent unemployment, Obama and the Democrats are rediscovering the maxim that in politics, absent an unpopular war, there's nothing as bad for the party in power as a bad economy.
OBAMA – The president himself is down to scant 5-point leads over the Republicans in Congress in trust to handle the economy, health care reform and the threat of terrorism – down, respectively, from 37-, 28- and 21-point advantages on these issues in the spring and summer. His lead on the economy, now near naught, had been a record in ABC/Post polls since 1991.
The president and the opposition party score about evenly, 45-43 percent, in trust to handle the deficit, an especially weak issue for Obama. He does slightly better, but hardly well, in trust to create jobs, an issue he's newly (critics would say belatedly) stressed – a 7-point advantage over the Republicans, but below majority preference, 48 to 41 percent.
The president's rated negatively for his handling of four out of five individual issues tested in this poll: the deficit (56 percent disapprove), health care and the economy (53 percent apiece) and creating jobs (51 percent). His only positive is for handling terrorism.
His opponents, moreover, are fired up. On health care 43 percent "strongly" disapprove of his performance, while far fewer, 24 percent, strongly approve. On the economy strong disapprovers outnumber strong approvers by 16 points, 38 percent to 22 percent. And on the deficit it's a 23-point margin; 40 percent strongly disapprove while just 17 percent approve strongly.
On top of all this, Obama faces growing second-guessing about trials of accused terrorists. In a shift from November, 55 percent of Americans now say such trials should be held in special military tribunals rather than in the existing federal court system. With handling terrorism one of Obama's last redoubts, that disagreement with his policy poses a threat.
POWER and PARTISANSHIP – In another slap at the party in power, 57 percent of Americans say it's a good thing the Republicans have broken the Democratic supermajority in the Senate, because it'll force the Democrats to cooperate more with GOP leaders to get things done.
But therein lies a challenge for the Republicans – the risk of being seen as obstructionist. They're far more likely than Obama to be seen as not doing enough to compromise on important issues; 58 percent say the Republicans are doing too little to compromise, vs. 44 percent who say that about Obama. (See Feb. 9 analysis.) And more than two-thirds, 68 percent, say the GOP should use its newly regained power to block legislation in the Senate only infrequently.
Indeed, while the GOP is well-positioned to compete this fall, its task in the months ahead is to focus and channel the public's frustration to work in its favor. The risk otherwise is that anti-incumbency could work against Republican incumbents as well as against Democratic ones.
Currently, 48 percent of Americans describe themselves as anti-incumbent, vs. 35 percent pro-incumbent, the 13-point margin noted above. While that presents plenty of raw material for challengers, it compares a bit meekly to the 24-point margin, 53-29 percent, for anti-incumbency in summer 2006, and an almost identical 54-29 percent in 1994.
That doesn't mean they think it'll happen: The public divides evenly, 48-46 percent, on whether comprehensive reform has a chance of becoming law this year, or is dead.
An evaluation of the charms vs. the flaws in reform, from the public's perspective, is instructive. Several main elements remain broadly popular: Eighty percent of Americans support banning limits on pre-existing conditions. Seventy-two percent favor an employer mandate, requiring employers to offer health insurance to their full-time employees. And fewer but still 56 percent support a personal mandate requiring all Americans to have health insurance, either from work or another source, with assistance to help low-income people foot the bill.
But those attractions are balanced by unpopular aspects of reform. Sixty percent of Americans say the proposed changes to the health care system are too complicated; just 35 percent say it has to be this complex to accomplish the desired goals. And the division is about the same on costs: Fifty-nine percent say the plan as it stands simply is too expensive.
Another barrier to reform is ongoing satisfaction with existing insurers. Whatever their concerns about future costs, coverage and the health system overall, among Americans who have private health insurance, a substantial majority, 74 percent, say they trust their insurance company to handle their claims fairly. And people who trust their insurer are much more likely to oppose the reform plan as it now stands.
PROFILE and PARTY ID – The Democrats, then, have potential pushback against the GOP both in broad support for some sort of comprehensive health care reform, and in its related effort to tag the Republicans with the obstructionist label. The Democrats also have two other resources: A somewhat better general public profile, and a slight advantage in partisan affiliation. Both, though, have thinned considerably.
On the latter, 32 percent of Americans in this poll identify themselves as Democrats, 26 percent as Republicans, 39 percent as independents. While that produces a 6-point Democratic edge in affiliation, it compares with an 11-point Democratic margin on average in 2009. Moreover, asking independents which party they lean toward produces a close 49-45 percent Democratic-Republican division overall, compared with a 2009 average of 52-39 percent.
The edge in favorability – basic popularity – tells a similar story. Fifty percent of Americans see the Democratic Party favorably, 46 percent unfavorably. The Republican Party's ratings are weaker – 44 percent favorable, 52 percent unfavorable. But just since June, unfavorable ratings of the Democrats have gained 6 points – and favorable views of the GOP have gained 8.
The economy clearly hurts the in-party. Among Americans who see no sign of recovery yet, 55 percent describe themselves as generally anti-incumbent, 63 percent are disinclined to re-elect their own representative and, among those who are registered to vote, Republican candidates hold a 58-33 percent advantage in midterm election preferences.
Chilling for the Democrats, too, is the position of often swing-voting independents. They prefer the Republican over the Democrat in their congressional district by 51-35 percent (again, among those who are registered to vote). Sixty-seven percent of independents say they're inclined to look around for someone else rather than voting for the incumbent; it's nearly as high among Republicans, 60 percent, vs. just 41 percent among Democrats.
Similarly, 56 percent of independents call themselves anti-incumbent, about the same as its level among Republicans (55 percent), vs. just 34 percent of Democrats. And it cuts to vote: Anti-incumbents who are registered to vote favor the Republican over the Democrat in their congressional district by 58-33 percent. Pro-incumbents favor the Democrats by a similar margin. But there are fewer of them.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Feb. 4-8, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,004 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. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.