Nov. 6, 2005 — -- A year out from the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats hold an extraordinary lead in voter preferences -- but far less of an advantage in the practical elements it can take to turn an out-party's hopes into votes: leadership, anti-incumbency and a unified theme.
Opportunity is there for the Democrats: Capitalizing on George W. Bush's troubles, the party has a 12-point advantage over the Republicans in trust to handle the nation's main problems, and it leads in nine of 10 individual issues, with some huge gains from three years ago. In the 10th -- Bush's trademark, handling terrorism -- the Democrats run even.
Indeed, 55 percent of Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say they'd like to see the Democrats take control of Congress in 2006. And if the election were today, registered voters would favor the Democrat in their congressional district by 52 percent to 37 percent.
That 15-point margin is numerically the biggest for the Democrats since an ABC/Post poll in September 1984 (they ultimately lost 14 seats), although about the same as a 14-point Democratic lead in one poll in 1996 (when they gained nine).
The Democrats' advantage on issues extends to some surprising areas -- Iraq and the economy, for example -- and show striking gains from late 2002.
So does their edge in attributes: They hold a 10-point lead, 50 percent to 40 percent, as the party that "better represents your personal values."
But a year can be a millennium in political terms, and midterm elections are far more complicated than a single popularity contest. With incumbent re-election rates usually over 90 percent, it takes a nationalized congressional election -- with a differentiated, unifying theme and anti-incumbent sentiment -- to create real change. The template is the Republicans' realigning election of 1994, when they gained 52 House seats and the control they still enjoy today.
Those elements, thus far, are lacking for 2006. Sixty percent of Americans approve of the work their own representative is doing (compared with 49 percent in October 1994). Despite trailing virtually everywhere else, the Republicans hold a 16-point advantage, 51 percent to 35 percent, as the party that has stronger leaders. And Republicans are more unified behind their party's leadership than are Democrats behind theirs.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for the Democrats is differentiation: Even with their edge on issues, just 44 percent of Americans say the Democrats are offering the country a clear direction that's different from the Republicans. (And notably, just 38 percent of independents say so.) That suggests that the current state of play says more about Republican weaknesses than Democratic strengths.
While the Democrats struggle to find a compelling message, Republican candidates may seek distance from their president, complicating Bush's efforts to govern in the year ahead. By nearly a 2-1 margin, 34 percent to 18 percent, Americans say they're more likely to oppose than to support a candidate who's closely associated with Bush.
And independents -- the key swing voters -- say by a slightly wider margin, 37 percent to 12 percent, that they're more apt to oppose a candidate who's closely aligned with Bush.
That reflects Bush's current difficulties -- a career-low 39 percent job approval rating and weakness across issues and personal attributes -- brought on by difficulties in Iraq, the troubled Hurricane Katrina response, economic concerns and the ethics cloud over the White House.
Ethics, though, do not look like a Democratic advantage: Americans roughly divide on which party has a higher level of ethics and honesty -- 16 percent say the Democrats, 12 percent say the Republicans -- and the big majority, 71 percent, rate them the same.
There is also somewhat of a pox on both houses in public attitudes. Just 46 percent of Americans express confidence in the government's ability to get things done. Fifty-nine percent disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, and 61 percent disapprove of the way the Republicans in Congress specifically are performing. But the Democrats, while better-rated, hardly have bragging rights: Fifty-four percent see their performance negatively as well.
That said, the change in preferences between the parties on issues since they were last asked in an ABC/Post poll in late 2002 is vast. Then, the two parties were rated about evenly in trust to handle the economy; now the Democrats lead by 22 points, 56 percent to 34 percent. On Iraq, the Republicans led by 26 points; now the Democrats lead by 11. On terrorism, the Republicans led by 36 points; now the parties are even.
As strong as they currently are on issues, the Democrats two biggest leads are on attributes: By 33 points, 56 percent to 33 percent, they're seen as the party "more concerned with the needs of people like you." And they hold a 36-point advantage, 60 percent to 24 percent, as the party that's "more open to the ideas of people who are political moderates." The challenge for the Democrats in the next year is to consolidate that image advantage into actual votes across congressional districts.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,202 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.