Decade-high discontent marks the political landscape a year before the 2008 election, with economic worries compounding the public's war weariness, deep dissatisfaction with the sitting president -- and growing disapproval of the Democratic-led Congress.
Seventy-four percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll say the country is headed in the wrong direction, the most since the government shut down in a contentious budget battle in early 1996. And while George W. Bush remains at his career low in job approval, he now has company: A year after they won control of the House and Senate, approval of the Democrats in Congress has fallen to its lowest since 1995.
At play are two of the most powerful forces in politics: an unpopular war and economic anxiety. On Iraq, 63 percent of Americans continue to say the war was not worth fighting. And at home, nearly two-thirds rate the economy negatively, with nearly seven in 10 seeing some likelihood of a recession in the year ahead.
A clear demand is for change; 75 percent want to see the next president lead the nation in a direction different from Bush's. That compares to just 47 percent who held that view at this point in Bill Clinton's presidency, 55 percent in Ronald Reagan's. Even among Republicans, a bare majority wants a change in direction from Bush's.
Indeed, while 67 percent of Republicans still approve of Bush's job performance, that's a career low within his own party. (Among all Americans, just 33 percent approve.) And a majority of Republicans, 53 percent, say the country's off on the wrong track; that soars to 74 percent of independents and a nearly unanimous 91 percent of Democrats.
While the Democrats retain the upper hand on most issues, they've failed to retain their grasp on the sentiment that brought them to power in Congress: Approval of the Democrats in Congress has dropped by a remarkable 18 points since spring. And in the presidential race, Hillary Clinton, while highly popular within her party, remains a divisive figure more broadly. Nearly half the public views her unfavorably, and more view her "strongly" unfavorably than any other leading candidate in either party.
Challenges to the Republicans are deeper still. While Giuliani retains the advantage for the nomination, he's still comparatively weak in the Republican base. And his own personal favorability rating -- the basic measure of a public figure's popularity -- has dropped sharply, from 67 percent in December to 50 percent now, on par with Clinton's.
Just 39 percent of Americans view the Republican Party favorably, the fewest since 1998 and down a remarkable 24 points from its post-9/11 high in early 2002. Substantially more hold a favorable view of the Democratic Party -- 51 percent -- although this, too, is far below its best, 64 percent in late 2000.
Fifty-four percent of Americans want the Democrats to retain control of Congress after the next election. But given their declining ratings, the Democrats' current advantage is hardly a lock. And the discouraged, disgruntled nature of public opinion may make the election of 2008 a particularly unpredictable one.
Three issues look primed to dominate: Iraq, the economy and health care. Asked the first and second most important issues in the election, 45 percent cite Iraq, 29 percent the economy and 27 percent health care, with other mentions in the single digits.
There are some partisan differences: Republicans are more apt than Democrats to cite terrorism or immigration, while Democrats are more emphatic on health care and Iraq.
Interest in the election remains substantial -- 67 percent of Americans say they're following it somewhat or very closely (mainly "somewhat"), steady all year. And Democrats are more apt to like what they see: Eighty-one percent are satisfied with their choice of candidates, far more than said so at this time in 2003 (68 percent). Notably fewer Republicans, 69 percent, are satisfied with the choices for their nomination.
The Democrats' interest is focused in large part on Clinton, who retains a sizable lead for the nomination. She's supported by 49 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, compared with 26 percent for Barack Obama and 12 percent for John Edwards, with all others in single digits. The figures are virtually identical among registered voters and likely voters.
Clinton's support has ranged from 41 to 53 percent in seven ABC/Post polls this year, highest in the last two. She continues to lead across population groups within the party. The only meaningful change in this poll compared to the last, completed Sept. 30, is a slight six-point improvement for Obama, putting him back at his level earlier this year.
Within her party, Clinton's riding the two-horse team of strength and electability. Sixty-two percent of Democrats pick her as the candidate most likely to win in November, a new high and up 19 points since June. Fifty-nine percent also pick her as the strongest leader, her next largest advantage.
Her reputation for overall leadership also lends Clinton a more-than 2-1 advantage among Democrats in trust to handle Iraq and Iran alike, the latter despite a recent dust-up over her support for designating Iran's Republican Guards as a terrorist group.
Clinton has been, and remains, most vulnerable on honesty and trustworthiness, an attribute on which a comparatively low 34 percent now choose her, vs. 29 percent for Obama. But that is better than it was as recently as June, when Obama had a six-point edge on this quality.
In the Republican race, Giuliani retains almost a 2-1 lead over his closest opponents, with 33 percent support from Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, compared with 19 percent for John McCain, 16 percent for Fred Thompson, 11 percent for Mitt Romney and 9 percent for Mike Huckabee. The only real change from a month ago is a seven-point advance for McCain, back to his level earlier this year.
There are many more fault lines in the Republican contest than on the Democratic side. Evangelical white Protestants, a core Republican group with objections to Giuliani's support for legal abortion and gay civil unions, divide evenly among Giuliani, McCain and Thompson. Similarly, Giuliani's support is 10 points lower among conservatives than among moderates (conservatives provide nearly all of Huckabee's support). And Giuliani holds a substantially larger lead among Republican-leaning independents than among mainline Republicans.
Nonetheless, preferences in this contest, as in the Democratic race, are consistent across registered and likely voter groups.
In terms of personal attributes, Giuliani, like Clinton in her race, holds broad advantages on electability and strength. But more fault lines appear on others: He runs only evenly with McCain, with Thompson and Romney close behind, as the candidate who "best reflects the core values of the Republican Party." Giuliani and McCain likewise are even in trust to handle the situation in Iraq. They're about even on honesty and trustworthiness, and -- another Giuliani vulnerability -- in being "closest to you on the issues."
Americans favor the Democrats over the Republicans in trust to handle five of six individual issues tested in this poll, including the top election issues -- health care, by a wide 54 to 29 percent margin; the situation in Iraq, by 50-34 percent; and the economy, by 50-35 percent.
The Democrats have smaller leads on taxes and immigration, and run evenly with the Republicans in trust to handle terrorism, Bush's cornerstone issue.
Still, while those results bode well for the Democrats a year out, presidential elections ultimately come down to a comparative contest between the two nominees. There, preferences can differ -- particularly given the motivation of strong sentiment.
In Clinton's case, while 50 percent of Americans view her favorably overall, 46 percent view her unfavorably -- including 35 percent "strongly" unfavorably. Giuliani's strongly unfavorable rating, the next highest of any candidate, is a dozen points lower.
Expressed another way, Clinton's most favorable groups are strong Democrats (59 percent rate her strongly favorably) and African-Americans (52 percent). But antipathy toward her jumps higher in her most strongly unfavorable groups -- conservative Republicans (77 percent strongly unfavorable), strong Republicans (73 percent) and Republican men (71 percent).
The result is that, despite the Democratic advantage on issues, a trial heat between Clinton and Giuliani is very close: Fifty percent of Americans prefer Clinton, 46 percent Giuliani. (That compares with 51-43 percent a month ago; in this poll slightly more, 29 percent, identify themselves as Republicans, vs. a 2007 average of 25 percent.) Pitting Clinton against McCain produces a 52-43 percent contest, while her lead grows against either Thompson (56-40 percent) or Romney (57-39 percent).
What advantage Clinton holds is chiefly among women, who are more likely than men to be Democrats; against Giuliani, for example, she's supported by 56 percent of women, while he's preferred by 51 percent of men.
Generally the key swing group in presidential politics is independents -- a group whose allegiance is most easily moved, and one that's big enough to affect the outcome. And currently 47 percent of independents support Clinton, 46 percent for Giuliani -- essentially a tie, and as such, perhaps, an indication of the political drama to come.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 29-Nov. 1, 2007, among a random national sample of 1,131 adults, including an oversample of African Americans for a total of 203 black respondents (weighted back to their correct share of the national population). The results have a three-point error margin for the full sample, four points for the sample of 598 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents and 4.5 points for the sample of 436 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.