New Flares for GOP in 2006 Election Views

ByAnalysis By Gary Langer

Aug. 7, 2006 — -- There are new warning flares for Republicans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll: Fifty-three percent of Americans call themselves "anti-incumbent," and the fewest since 1994 approve of their own representative's performance in Washington.

Anti-incumbency is as high now as it was in the summer of 1994, before the last election in which control of Congress changed hands. And it peaks not just among Democrats and liberals but among traditional swing voters as well. Sixty-one percent of Independents, for example, say they're anti-incumbent this year.

The danger for Republicans is underscored by their deficit in voter preference. Fifty-two percent of registered voters say if the election were held today they'd support the Democrat in their congressional district, 39 percent the Republican -- a number that has held steady for nine months running. Among anti-incumbent voters, nearly two-thirds support Democrats for the House.

Much of the Republicans' problems reflect President Bush's in general, and the Iraq War in particular. By a 15-point margin, Americans are less likely rather than more likely to vote for a candidate who supports Bush's policies in Iraq. That soars to a 44-point margin among liberals, underscoring Sen. Joseph Lieberman's trouble in his Democratic primary tomorrow. But it also reaches more broadly: Moderates are 27 points more likely to oppose a candidate who favors Bush's war policies; Independents, 25 points.

Another result -- a sharp ideology gap -- marks the Republicans' risk. While 83 percent of liberals support the Democrat in their congressional district, fewer conservatives, 60 percent, support the Republican. Indeed, three in 10 conservatives favor the Democrat in their district, substantially more than the 18 percent of liberals who voted Republican in 1994.

Still, other results are less bleak for the Republicans. While Bush's job approval rating remains weak, 40 percent, that's its best since March, and it's up seven points from its mid-May low. Approval of Congress, while just 36 percent, was much worse shortly before the 1994 election -- a dreadful 18 percent. And while a relatively low 55 percent approve of their own representative, this, too fell lower, 49 percent, in fall 1994.

The Democrats, while rich in opportunity, have yet to close the sale. Americans divide evenly on whether the party is offering the country a clear direction that's different from the Republicans. (That is, however, five points better for the Democrats than it was in May.) While most Americans don't think Bush has a clear plan for Iraq, just as many say the Democrats don't have a clear plan either. And while the Democrats have a 26-point lead as being "more concerned with the needs of people like you," the Republicans counter with an 18-point advantage as the party that offers "stronger leaders."

A steady six in 10 Americans say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, and 62 percent disapprove of how Bush is handling it. But one key question is whether the Democrats can do any better. People roughly divide on which party they trust more to handle the situation in Iraq, the Democrats (43 percent) or the Republicans (40 percent). That's weakened from a Democratic advantage that peaked at 14 points, 50-36 percent, in May.

At the same time, the Democrats have an eight-point edge in trust to handle the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism, an issue of central importance to Bush and his party, and one on which public preferences have been unsteady this year. A more consistent weakness for Bush, beyond Iraq, has been the economy: Fifty-nine percent disapprove of how he's handling it, with gasoline prices one major irritant.

In fact, the biggest change in top issues in the fall election is in gas prices. Fifteen percent of registered voters now call them the single most important issue in their vote, doubled since June, and now slightly more than the number (11 percent) who call terrorism their top issue. (More, 21 percent apiece, pick Iraq or the economy as their No. 1 issue.)

ELECTION -- Attention on the election is substantial: Sixty-six percent of registered voters are following it closely, far more than said they were at about this time in the 2002 election cycle (just 47 percent). Attention is highest among older and better-educated Americans, and among liberals -- the latter among the Democrats' strongest groups.

Independents, one of the two classic swing voter groups, favor the Democrat in their districts by 55-29 percent. White Catholics, the other, split 54-36 percent.

Even though the Democrats (like the president) are broadly seen as lacking a clear policy on Iraq, discontent with the war clearly helps them. Among the one-fifth of voters who call it their top issue, 69 percent favor the Democrat in their district.

Democrats also win 63 percent of economy voters and 52 percent of health care voters; voters who care most about gas prices break 49-38 percent, also for the Democrats. The Republicans, for their part, lead by large margins among those who care most about either terrorism or immigration.

The attributes of empathy vs. leadership also are important points of differentiation, again with an advantage to the Democrats. People who think the Democrats are more in tune with their needs favor the Democratic candidate in their district by 88-9 percent. People who think the Republicans have stronger leaders favor Republican candidates -- but by a narrower 65-29 percent.

ANTI-INCUMBENCY -- As noted, overall anti-incumbent sentiment is about the same now as in summer 1994. But one difference could mitigate its sting: Anti-incumbency is somewhat more partisan now than it was 12 years ago. In June 1994, 46 percent of Democrats, the party then in control of the House, called themselves anti-incumbent. Today fewer Republicans -- 33 percent -- share that view.

Anti-incumbency peaks at about seven in 10 liberal Democrats, compared with just one in four conservative Republicans. Among all Democrats, more than six in 10 are anti-incumbent, compared with a third of all Republicans. Two-thirds of liberals and six in 10 moderates are anti-incumbent; it's four in 10 among conservatives. And among the swing voter groups independents and white Catholics, six in 10 say they're anti-incumbent.

IRAQ -- Views on Iraq are largely stable, and while the war is unpopular, relatively few Americans are calling for an immediate, complete pullout. Fifty-three percent favor decreasing the number of U.S. troops there, but fewer, 18 percent, call for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces.

Public attitudes on the situation in Iraq in part seem in accord with those of Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, who suggested in testimony to Congress that Iraq was not there yet but "could move toward civil war." About a third of Americans in this poll say Iraq is in a civil war already; 51 percent say it's not in one yet -- but close to one. The net total, 85 percent, is up slightly from April.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 3-6, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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