Oct. 23, 2006 -- It's two weeks away, and the 2006 midterm elections look like a referendum on Iraq, a war in which President Bush and his party have lost not just the political center but significant chunks of their base.
An improving economy notwithstanding, opposition to the war remains the prime issue driving congressional voter preference. And the war's critics include not just eight in 10 Democrats but 64 percent of independents, 40 percent of conservatives, 35 percent of evangelical white Protestants and a quarter of Republicans.
It matters: Among the four in 10 registered voters who favor the war in Iraq, 73 percent support the Republicans in their congressional districts. But many more, nearly six in 10, oppose the war, and 78 percent favor Democrats for the House.
That spells a continued, dramatic Democratic lead: Fifty-four percent of registered voters in this ABC News/Washington Post poll prefer the Democrats in their districts, 41 percent the Republicans. This is the highest level of Democratic preference we've seen in ABC/Post surveys this close to Election Day since 1984.
Among likely voters, the race is a nearly identical 55-41 percent.
Another result underscores the sense of urgency many Americans give to this election: Fifty-eight percent of registered voters call the 2006 races more important to the country than past congressional elections in their lifetime. Democrats, in particular, say so -- 69 percent of them versus 49 percent of Republicans.
The Democratic lead comes mainly from the center, which simply is not holding for the Republicans: Independents, the quintessential swing voters, favor Democrats for the House by 28 percentage points, 59-31 percent. That compares with a three-point Democratic edge among independents in the 2004 exit poll; indeed, this is better than House Democrats have done among independents in exit polls since 1982.
But Democratic House candidates are also poaching on Republican turf, notably winning support from 29 percent of conservatives compared with 17 percent in 2004, and, albeit in less of a shift, by 30 percent of evangelical white Protestants versus 24 percent in 2004.
Democratic congressional candidates also now lead by 54-42 percent among men -- a group the Democrats haven't won since 1992. And 10 percent of Republicans favor the Democrats in their districts -- a small group but greater than the level of Democratic defections to Republican candidates, which is just 4 percent.
A further problem for the Republicans is the war-related desire for change, and specifically, for a change from the current Republican leadership. Just 37 percent of Americans approve of President Bush's overall job performance, down five points from September. He's been rated lower than that just once in his career, when he received 33 percent approval in May -- and then, unlike now, rising gasoline prices were partly to blame.
Nearly twice as many registered voters say they'll cast their ballot as a way to show opposition to the president (31 percent) as to support him (17 percent); that is triple the level of anti-Clinton voting in the 1998 midterms, during the height of the Lewinsky scandal.
Sixty-eight percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track -- the highest in 10 years, save for last May and November -- a view closely related to views on the Iraq War. Sixty-five percent disapprove of how Congress is doing its job, including 45 percent of Republicans, whose party controls the institution.
And in a sign that the ill will is aimed at the Republican leadership, 47 percent of registered voters say it would be a good thing if control of Congress switched to the Democrats, twice as many as say it'd be a bad thing. At this time in 1994, substantially less, 36 percent, said it'd be a good thing if the Republicans took control, as they did.
The 1994 election was anti-incumbent; at the time, just 49 percent approved of their own representative's job performance. Today more, 59 percent, approve of how their rep is doing, making it less of an anti-incumbent election and more of a partisan protest.
The Democrats have benefited from a substantial negative vote. Among registered voters who prefer Democrats for the House, 55 percent are mainly voting for Democrats, but a substantial 43 percent say they're mainly voting to oppose the Republican candidate. The Republican vote is much more affirmative: Seventy percent pro-Republican, 25 percent anti-Democrat.
The congressional horse race reveals more about voter sentiment nationally than about the status of individual races at the state and district level. Incumbency is powerful, late advertising matters and get-out-the vote drives can be decisive. But another result indicates that the Democrats -- at least so far -- have held their own in voter contacts.
As many registered voters say they've been contacted on behalf of Democratic candidates as often as on behalf of Republican candidates (about two in 10 in both cases). And the Democratic calls seems better targeted: People who've been solicited on behalf of Democratic candidates favor the Democrats in their districts by a 45-point margin; people who've been contacted on behalf of Republicans prefer the Republicans by a narrower 19 points.
Bush and his party clearly want to change the subject of the election from Iraq to something (almost anything) else. Hence, the president's comments today heralding the economy. It makes sense: Fifty-five percent of Americans in this poll say the economy is in good shape -- the most since Bush took office.
But economic gains are not evenly spread: While 24 percent say they're getting ahead financially, as many, 23 percent, say they're falling behind, and most, 52 percent, say they're simply maintaining their standard of living, not improving it.
The result is that the economy, even while rated as getting better, is not bringing the Republicans much in the way of votes. Registered voters who are getting ahead financially favor the Republicans in their districts by 64-34 percent; those who are falling behind favor the Democrats by 76-18 percent. But, crucially, the big middle group, those treading water economically, go for the Democrats by a 17-point margin, 56-39 percent.
Moreover, those who call the economy the most important issue in their vote favor the Democrat in their district, by 57-39 percent.
Twenty-seven percent of registered voters call the war in Iraq the top issue in their vote; 19 percent say it's the economy; 14 percent terrorism; 13 percent health care; 10 percent immigration; and 8 percent ethics in government.
Iraq is not only the top issue but the Democrats' most powerful one -- people who pick it favor Democrats for Congress by 76-21 percent. Democrats also hold substantial leads on the economy, as noted, and on health care, a longtime Democratic strength.
Terrorism remains the Republicans' best issue by far; they lead by 80-17 percent among people who call this their top issue. They also hold a large lead among immigration voters. For all the attention paid to the Foley scandal, ethics is the issue that not only ranks lowest but cuts least among voters who pick it as their top issue.
Men and women are equally critical of the war in Iraq, but women are more likely to call it the most important issue in their vote: Thirty-one percent of women say so, making it their top issue by far. In contrast, men divide between the economy (25 percent) and Iraq (22 percent).
Women are also 13 points more likely than men to call this election more important than past congressional elections in their lifetimes -- 62 percent say so versus 49 percent of men.
Negative as they are, views on the war in Iraq are slightly less so than they were earlier this month: Then, 63 percent said the war was not worth fighting compared with 57 percent now. The fundamental point, though, is that a majority of Americans haven't endorsed the war since September 2004.
Beyond that rating, 55 percent of Americans are pessimistic about the situation in Iraq in the year ahead. Many more, 76 percent, say the war has damaged the United States' image throughout the rest of the world. And for the first time in ABC/Post polls, less than half, 47 percent, believe the war has improved the lives of the Iraqi people, down dramatically from 68 percent in June.
Another unsettling result on Iraq is the fact that 45 percent of Americans believe the country is heading for the same kind of involvement there that it had in Vietnam (including the 5 percent who believe that's already happened).
Blame, again, is directed at Republicans. Fifty-five percent of Americans say the Republicans in Congress should get a great deal or good amount of blame for problems relating to the war in Iraq. Far less, 35 percent, blame the Democrats.
Moreover, while 55 percent blame the Republicans in Congress for Iraq, less, 43 percent, give them credit for the fact that there hasn't been another terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. less still, 27 percent, credit the Democrats.
Finally, in trust-to-handle ratings among registered voters, the Democrats have a 13-point lead on ethics, nine points on the economy, eight points on Iraq and seven points on handling the situation with North Korea. It's essentially a dead heat -- Dems +1 -- on trust to handle terrorism.
What's telling is that the Democrats' overall lead in congressional voter preference is larger than their leads on these individual issues. That, too, suggests that voter preferences are less about individual Democratic initiatives and more about broader discontent, grounded in public unhappiness with the war in Iraq.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 19-22, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,200 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
ABC News polls can be found at ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollvault.html.