Anti-incumbent sentiment has reached a 25-year high in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, with economic frustration damaging Barack Obama’s Democrats while the Republican Party labors under a broad view that it’s out of touch with the concerns of most Americans.
The Republicans run evenly with the Democrats in congressional vote preference among registered voters, historically a strong position for the GOP given its advantage in midterm turnout. Perhaps more important, with control of the U.S. Senate at stake, the Republicans have a 50-42 percent advantage for Senate seats in the 34 states holding those contests.
That said, the Tea Party is a substantial risk factor for the Republicans, the Democrats have gained back some ground since January on key issues – and the public’s double-barreled discontent poses deep uncertainty for both political parties at this stage of the midterm contest.
TOSS ‘EM? – Just 22 percent of Americans are inclined to re-elect their representative in Congress, the fewest since ABC/Post polls first asked the question in 1989. Instead this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that 68 percent say they’re ready to look around for someone new. That’s 14 percentage points more than average, and while anti-incumbency has been close before – 66 percent last October – it’s never been quite this high.
Anti-incumbent sentiment is largely economic in nature; as such, while there’s dissatisfaction with both parties, it’s pointed more at the Democrats, given their control of the big chair at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Pro-incumbents favor the Democrat in their congressional district by a 14-point margin. Anti-incumbents favor the Republicans, by 8.
Most damaging to the Democrats is that 72 percent of Americans still rate the economy negatively, more than five years into Obama’s stewardship. While that’s sharply down from its peak, 94 percent, as he took office, it’s still a broad majority. Moreover, while 56 percent say the economy has begun to improve, that view has lost steam – and among those who do see a recovery, two-thirds say it’s a weak one.
Obama’s own job performance rating is flat, at a below-majority 46 percent approval, unchanged from late January and only slightly above his career-low 42 percent in November. Fifty percent disapprove, and “strong” disapproval of the president exceeds his strong approval by 13 points, although that’s eased from 18- and 22-point gaps from November through January.
GOP – These views might be more damaging to the Democrats were it not for the GOP’s own problems. Sixty-eight percent of Americans see the Republican Party as “out of touch” with the concerns of most people in this country, far more than say the same about Obama (49 percent) or the Democratic Party (48 percent) – weak ratings in their own right. These are essentially unchanged in the past year.
Further, while the parties are evenly rated in trust to handle several key issues, the Democrats have gained ground on some, and there is none on which the Republicans clearly lead. In one important shortfall, the Republican Party trails the Democrats by 13 points in trust to help the middle class.
In a specific land mine for the Republicans, Americans by a vast 31 points, 50 vs. 19 percent, say they’re more likely rather than less likely to vote for a candidate who supports raising the minimum wage. That gives the Democrats some potential pushback against the GOP’s economic argument.
Then there’s the Tea Party movement, five years after it got rolling. While 40 percent of Americans support the Tea Party overall, just 8 percent call themselves strong supporters, numerically a new low (albeit by a single point) and half of what it was three years ago. More important, Americans by a 20-point margin say they’re less likely rather than more likely to vote for a candidate who supports the Tea Party, 36 vs. 16 percent.
There are intra-party issues as well. While 41 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents call it a good thing for Tea Party candidates to challenge Republican incumbents; 47 percent call it a bad thing. There’s an ideological schism here: Sixty-one percent of “very” conservative Republicans see Tea Party challenges as a good thing. That falls steeply to 38 percent of “somewhat” conservatives and 27 percent of moderate Republicans.
ON THE ISSUES – Head-to-head tests on top issues show some improvement for the Democrats, though not enough to change the bottom line of vote preferences. In January the Republicans had a 7-point lead in trust to handle the economy; today it’s a dead even 41-41 percent. The Democrats also have gone from a 10-point shortfall to a non-significant 2 points in trust to handle the deficit, and to an 8-point advantage on immigration, vs. 2 points in January.
Despite the controversy over Obamacare – and the president’s poor rating for handling its rollout – the Democrats are maintaining an edge, now 8 points, in trust to handle health care. They have the same advantage in trust on energy policy and they’re even with the Republicans on taxes.
Running competitively on taxes and the deficit should bode well for the Democrats. But they’re pulled back, as noted, by economic unhappiness and Obama’s tepid ratings. (Beyond his overall 46 percent approval, majorities disapprove of his handling of economy and Obamacare, 54 and 57 percent, respectively. The president has about an even split on handling international affairs in this poll, completed Sunday night as conflict was brewing in Ukraine.)
ISSUES and VOTES – For election purposes, what matters is not just comparative trust on the issues but which positions actually motivate voters. As noted, a candidate’s support for raising the minimum wage is a strong positive in these results, and his or her supporting the Tea Party is a substantial negative.
The federal health care law, for all the sound and fury, is looking like more of a wash: Thirty-six percent say they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate who favors the law, but essentially as many, 34 percent, would be more apt to back such a candidate, with the rest saying it would make no difference. (Reactions were more negative at the time of the botched rollout in November.) Supporting gay marriage also produces an even split in vote impact, while supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is a net negative by 8 points.
Given the strength of partisanship in voting, these results may be most telling among independents. The pattern’s similar, with a strong positive impact of favoring a higher minimum wage, negative impacts of supporting the Tea Party or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and little impact of supporting either Obamacare or gay marriage.
VOTE PREFERENCE and PARTY ID – Indeed, in House and Senate races alike, it’s independents who are keeping things hot, siding with Republicans for the House by 9 points and for the Senate by 16. It makes more of a difference in Senate races because independents account for slightly more registered voters in those 34 states than in the other 16, while Democrats are scarcer.
Also telling are partisan divisions among all adults nationally. In a sign of continued disaffection with the main parties, independents account for 40 percent of Americans overall; they’ve outnumbered either Democrats or Republicans almost continuously for nearly the past five years, by far their longest predominance since ABC/Post polling began in 1981.
Thirty percent are Democrats in this poll, and, in line with the GOP’s high “out of touch” rating, just 22 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans. Both are at the low end of their recent ranges.
ECONOMY – Regardless of other factors, as so often is the case, it’s the economy that rules the roost. Among Americans who say the economy is in excellent or good shape (27 percent of the public), 75 percent support Democratic congressional candidates. That tumbles to 44 percent of those who say the economy’s not so good, and just 21 percent of those who say it’s poor.
Similarly, Democratic support ranges from 84 percent of those who see a strong recovery to 44 percent of those who see a weak one and just 30 percent among those who see no recovery at all. (One reason: Democrats are disproportionately positive about the economy.)
Economic sentiment also feeds the country’s now-record anti-incumbency. Among Americans who hold positive views of the economy’s current condition and its direction alike, 55 percent are inclined to find new representation in Congress, about matching the long-term average for all adults. It’s among those who rate the economy especially negatively, or who see no recovery at all, that anti-incumbency soars, to three-quarters in both those groups.
There are some better signs for the economy; the number who rate it as outright “poor,” 28 percent, is its fewest since November 2007, down a vast from 62 percent when Obama took office. The question is whether that’s enough – because for all the political positioning ahead, the strongest likely influence on 2014 politics will be the same issue that’s been sorely vexing the country for seven years running: the condition of the national economy.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Feb. 27-March 2, 2014, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 30-22-40 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.
The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.