'Change' 2010 Style Turns the Political Screw

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A storm of economic and political discontent rages unabated in the final days of the 2010 midterm elections, positioning the Republican Party for solid gains in large part on the basis of what it's not: the party in power at a time of 9.6 percent unemployment.

The length and breadth of the economic downturn has fueled startling levels of public dismay, not so much eroding the coalition that elected Barack Obama two years ago as leaving it too dispirited to vote.

This ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that critics of the president and his policies, by contrast, are highly motivated -- and broadly pro-Republican.

The result is a turn of the screw: Riding the theme of "change" in 2008, Obama was supported by 82 percent of likely voters looking for "new ideas and a new direction." Today, by contrast, "new direction" voters -- as numerous now as they were two years ago -- favor Republican candidates for the House by a 21-point margin, 57-36 percent.

Overall, Republicans lead Democrats in House vote preference by 49-45 percent. That's narrowed from the GOP's remarkable 53-40 percent advantage in early September, a record in ABC/Post polling since 1981. But it's still enough to suggest substantial GOP gains.

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For some, the shouting's over: Two in 10 likely voters in this survey, produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates, say they've in fact voted already. Their choices reflect the broader population, 47-43 percent Republican vs. Democratic in House preference. Compare to 2008, when early voters backed Obama over John McCain by 58-40 percent.

Beneath the vote is the motivation. Among likely voters, 92 percent say the economy's in bad shape -- and despite $800 billion in stimulus spending, more say it's getting worse than better. Seventy-one percent say the country's headed seriously off on the wrong track.

Disapproval of Congress, a breathtaking 77 percent among likely voters, is its highest since 1994, when the GOP seized control after a stumbling start to the Clinton presidency. And 76 percent today are dissatisfied with the way the federal government is working, again a level unseen in 16 years.

Compared with 2008, voters who then said the country was on the wrong track favored Obama by 63-37 percent. Now "wrong track" likely voters favor Republican candidates for the House of Representatives by 65-29 percent.

Other comparisons underscore the point. In October 2008 Obama led McCain by 10 points among likely voters as the candidate who "better represents your own personal values," by 18 points as the one who "better understands the economic problems people in this country are having" and also by 18 points as better understanding "the problems of people like you." Among likely voters now, Republicans are essentially at parity, plus-4, minus-2 and minus-1, on each of these.

LIKELY -- The most profound changes are not in preferences, but who's motivated to act upon them. Take young voters: a core Obama group, he won them by 68-32 percent in 2008. Today registered voters that age favor Democratic candidates by a reasonably similar 60-37 percent. But among the relatively few 18- to 29-year-olds who say they're certain to vote, the margin dissolves to 51-49 percent (combining the last two ABC/Post polls for an adequate sample size).

Conclusion: Young adults still broadly favor Obama's party. But most of those who do simply aren't motivated to turn out in this election.

It holds across other groups. Single women are a core Democratic group, but among those who are registered, just 49 percent say they're certain to vote.

Among registered Democrats overall, 59 percent say they're certain to vote, compared with 74 percent of Republicans. It's 61 percent among liberals vs. 70 percent among conservatives, and the spread grows to 63 percent among liberal Democrats vs. 80 percent among conservative Republicans.

Similarly, among 2008 Obama voters, 64 percent say they're certain to vote this year; among McCain voters, 79 percent. Among those who approve of Congress, 58 percent; among its critics, 67 percent. And among those who view the workings of government positively, 59 percent affirm that they'll vote; among its critics, 66 percent. (Add in people who've already voted and these differentials are about the same.)

Working-class white men (those with household incomes under $50,000) favored McCain by 8 points in 2008, and among registered voters they favor Republicans now by essentially the same margin. But among working-class white men who are most likely to vote, that swells to a 19-point gap, 56-37 percent for GOP House candidates.

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And there's the Tea Party political movement. Overall it divides likely voters evenly; 43 percent support it, 43 percent are opposed. But among its opponents, 63 percent say they're certain to vote, while among its supporters, that's 73 percent. And among "strong" supporters of the Tea Party, albeit a small group, a remarkable 86 percent say they're certain to vote in this election.

Against all this the Democrats' ammunition is scarce. One edge is among union voters: People in union households are more apt than those in non-union households to say they'll certainly vote, 75 percent vs. 63 percent. And likely voters in union households are a pro-Democratic candidate group, by 54-42 percent. They voted for Obama by 59-39 percent in 2008.

GROUPS -- While turnout reigns, there's been some shifting in preferences as well. Obama won women by 56-43 percent; today they divide by 51-43 percent among registered voters -- and by 47-47 percent among likely voters. Obama won swing-voting unaffiliated voters (independents and others) by 52-44 percent two years ago. They now divide about evenly in House preference among registered voters, and favor Republicans by 50-41 percent among likely voters.

POLICY -- Perceptions of the Obama administration's approach to government are a factor as well, with Tea Party concerns resonating beyond the movement's ranks. Likely voters by nearly a 2-1 margin, 61-34 percent, say they favor smaller government with fewer services -- but by a vast 77-12 percent think Obama, by contrast, favors larger government with more services.

In another shift from 2008, by a 52-35 percent margin, more likely voters now worry that the Democrats will impose too many regulations than think the GOP will put in place too few of them. Two years ago this was reversed; more likely voters worried that McCain would impose too few government regulations than thought Obama would impose too many.

Judging the parties' approaches overall, likely voters divide about evenly on which they trust more to cope with the country's main problems: Forty-five percent pick the Republicans, 41 percent the Democrats -- a rare advantage for the GOP on this bottom-line measure.

ECONOMY -- Specifically on the economy, 55 percent of likely voters disapprove of Obama's performance, and, tellingly, twice as many "strongly" disapprove, 45 percent, as strongly approve, 23 percent. Likely voters, moreover, divide on which party they trust more to handle the economy, 47 percent for the Republicans, 43 percent for the Democrats.

Compare that, again, to 2008: In ABC/Post pre-election polls, likely voters trusted Obama over McCain on the economy by as much as 56-38 percent.

Likely voters by 13 points, 44-31 percent, also say they think it would be a good thing rather than a bad thing if the Republicans took control of Congress -- not as broad a margin as it was for the Democrats in 2006, 49-26 percent, but another turn in the GOP's favor nonetheless.

While economic discontent clearly is working to the Republicans' advantage, other policy concerns come into play when likely voters pick the "single most important issue" in their vote. Those who say it's the economy, 37 percent, actually favor Democratic candidates, 54-42 percent. Republican-inclined voters instead select top issues such as "the way Washington is working," the deficit and taxes.

Nonetheless, the economy's impact is clear. Likely voters who say it's in "poor" shape -- half the total -- favor Republican candidates by more than 2-1, 67-26 percent. Those who say it's getting worse favor Republicans even more broadly, by 74-19 percent. Those who say it's getting better, by contrast, favor Democrats, 80-16 percent. But they comprise fewer than three in 10 likely voters.

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OBAMA -- For all the public's discontent, the president himself is less of a target than was his predecessor in 2006. Then, amid unhappiness with the Iraq war, only 40 percent of Americans approved of George W. Bush's job performance, while 57 percent disapproved. Today fewer overall, 45 percent, disapprove of Obama's work in office, although this goes to 52 percent of likely voters.

Logically, vote preferences, too, were more directly anti-Bush in 2006; likely voters then said by nearly 2-1, 33 percent to 18 percent, that they were voting in part to express opposition to him rather than support for him. Today, on Obama, it's essentially even, 28-26 percent, with the rest saying he's not directly a factor.

That said, Obama approvers favor Democratic House candidates by 87-9 percent, while likely voters who disapprove of the president favor Republicans by almost an identical margin, 86-9 percent. If more of his supporters were voting, his party would be in better shape.

RE-ELECT? -- Given the hazard to incumbents, it's worth nothing that even in tough times most get re-elected; in every election since 1950 at least 88 percent of House incumbents seeking re-election won it. And while just 21 percent of likely voters now approve of the way Congress is performing, many more, 54 percent, approve of their own representative's work in office.

Nonetheless, that approval rating is well below the average; indeed Americans' disapproval of their own representative, at 40 percent, is near its high in ABC/Post polling since 1989. And it's a sign of the public's dark mood that while 54 percent approve of their own representative, many fewer likely voters, 40 percent, say they're inclined to re-elect that individual.

GOTV vs. MOTIVATION -- In the end it's about turnout, and while their prospects are slim, the Democrats are keeping pace in get-out-the-vote efforts; as many likely voters say they've been asked by a campaign organization to vote for a Democratic candidate as to vote for a Republican.

But asking for a vote is less powerful than being self-motivated to deliver it, and there clearly rests the Republican advantage. A quarter of likely voters are not only dissatisfied with the way the government is working but downright angry about it. The last time there were as many angry voters was in 1994, when they favored Republican candidates by 60-32 percent, enough to power the party to control of Congress.

Today, angry voters favor Republican House candidates by an even broader margin, 80-13 percent. And, come Tuesday, among those who are angry about the way the federal government is working, seven in 10 say they're certain to vote.

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METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 25-28, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,202 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3 points for the full sample, 3.5 points for registered voters and 4 points for likely voters. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. This survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y, with sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

ABC News polls can be found at ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollingunit