WASHINGTON, Sept. 4, 2010 -- Democratic congressional candidates face a political landscape even rockier than those in 1994 and 2006 that ended with election upheavals that changed control of Congress, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds.
As the fall campaign begins in earnest over Labor Day weekend, dissatisfaction with the nation's direction is higher and support for the party in power lower than it was in those tumultuous midterms.
This time, however, voters are more likely to say their vote reflects opposition to the party in power rather than support for the other side. Republicans are held in the same low regard as when the GOP lost control of Congress four years ago.
That could create problems if they do score a net gain of 39 seats to control the House of Representatives or 10 seats to control the Senate.
"It's good news for Republicans winning elections in the fall, but it may sow divisions for governing in January," says Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at of the University of Minnesota. "It's a mandate for change from the Democrats but not a mandate for Tea Party policies" that may divide the GOP later.
Among voters supporting Republican candidates, nearly half say they're motivated by a desire to defeat the Democrat. By 2-1, they would rather vote for someone new than a current GOP member of Congress.
A third of those polled approve of the job congressional Republicans are doing, the same dismal rating congressional Democrats receive.
"I'm basically a conservative, but if we were on a 10-point scale I wouldn't give either group better than a 5," says James Deresinski, 65, of Sedalia, Mo., who was among those surveyed. Still, he expects to vote a straight Republican ticket this fall.
"The Democrats are spend-a-holics; it's just been a nightmare," says Glenn Dykstra, 38, of Havelock, N.C. He would like to vote for a Tea Party candidate, but if one isn't on the ballot, he is prepared to vote for the Republican instead.
Whatever problems the GOP risks down the road, Democrats seem headed for disaster in the election eight weeks away:
• President Obama's approval rating is 43%; in the separate daily Gallup Poll, it was at 46% Thursday. In the past, when a president's rating fell below 50%, his party suffered larger setbacks in midterm elections than if his approval was above that level.
• Downbeat views of the economy and concern about unemployment drive voters' decisions. More than eight in 10 say the nation is in a recession, and a majority say things are staying the same or getting worse, not getting better.
• By 49%-43%, those surveyed prefer a GOP candidate over a Democrat. What's more, two-thirds of Republicans are "extremely motivated" to vote, compared with less than half of Democrats.
• A majority disapprove of four of five major pieces of legislation Congress has passed in the past two years, making it problematic for Democratic incumbents to boast about their accomplishments.
For one, Americans disapprove of the Democrats' signature health care overhaul by 56%-39%.
Only increased regulation of banks was rated positively.
"All of that stuff they did, it hasn't done one thing for me," says Sally Free, 61, a Democrat from Chillicothe, Ohio, who makes wedding dresses. "I'm the middle class. I'm the one that pays all the taxes. I think they work for me, and I'd fire them if I could."