Republicans Inch Closer in ’06 Election Preference

Terrorism has inched up in importance in the 2006 midterm elections and Republicans have regained an edge in trust to handle it -- helping George W. Bush's party move closer to the Democrats in congressional vote preference.

The Republicans lead the Democrats in trust to handle terrorism by 48-41 percent among registered voters in this ABC News poll, a flip from a seven-point Democratic advantage last month. And 16 percent now call terrorism the top issue in their vote, a slight five-point gain.

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2006 Republican election

The Republicans' edge on handling terrorism is still vastly below their 35-point lead on the issue heading into the 2002 midterm elections. But it's still their best issue -- the one Bush rode to re-election. And part of their gain is among independents, the key swing voters in any election: They now split between the parties in trust to handle terrorism, after favoring the Democrats by nine points last month.

ISSUES -- On issues, Iraq and the economy continue to share top billing in voters' minds. But terrorism has moved up in mentions as the most important issue, from nine percent in June to 11 percent in early August to 16 percent now. This week's focus on the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks may have played a role; so, too, has the decline in gasoline prices -- cited as a top issue by 15 percent last month, but just five percent now.

Clearly, the more voters focus on terrorism, the better for the Republicans in November: Among registered voters who call terrorism their top issue, 77 percent say they'll vote for the Republican candidate in their district.

Democrats, for their part, would rather keep Iraq and the economy center stage. Two in 10 registered voters call Iraq their top issue; about as many cite the economy. Democrats win the support of these voters handily -- 68 percent in both groups currently back the Democratic candidate in their congressional district.

All told, 50 percent of registered voters now favor the Democratic congressional candidate in their C.D., 42 percent the Republican -- a narrower Democratic advantage than the 13-point lead they held all summer, and half what it was last January. It's a similar 51-44 percent among likely voters.

IRAQ/TERRORISM -- The Democrats face challenges on Iraq as well. While the party's candidates lead widely among the voters who call Iraq their top issue, registered voters overall are now evenly split over which party they better trust to handle Iraq: Forty-three percent trust the Democrats, 44 percent the Republicans. The Democrats had led on Iraq by as many as 13 points last May.

One reason could be the lack of a clear alternative strategy: While 60 percent of registered voters don't think Bush has a clear plan what do in Iraq, 69 percent don't think the Democrats have a clear plan, either.

Moreover, most Americans, 57 percent, continue to see the war in Iraq as part of the war on terrorism, as Bush has steadily suggested. That has been more or less stable since fall 2004, after peaking at 77 percent just after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.

People who see Iraq as part of the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism are more apt to support the Iraq war -- and to support Bush and his party as well. That's the apparent strategy behind Bush's inclusion of Iraq in his 9/11 anniversary address Monday night.

Indeed, among people who think the war in Iraq is part of the war on terrorism (a group that is disproportionately Republican), the Republican Party holds a 2-1 lead in the generic congressional horse race. Among those who say Iraq is not part of the war on terrorism, by contrast, it's a 75-16 percent Democratic lead.

OTHER ISSUES -- Most generally, 46 percent of registered voters trust the Democrats to do a better job handling the country's main problems, 40 percent trust the Republicans more. That six-point Democratic lead, again, is half what it was in May, when Bush's job approval rating skidded to a career low 33 percent (it's 42 percent now).

The Democrats maintain their leads in trust to handle the economy, by 51-41 percent, and gasoline prices, 51-31 percent. But while the economy has maintained its level of importance to voters, gas prices, as noted, have not. No small wonder: The average price of a gallon has dropped by 42 cents in the last six weeks.

Among other issues, 13 percent cite health care as the most important to their vote, 11 percent cite immigration, and just two percent education. Republicans win the support of immigration voters by 59-33 percent, while Democrats counter with the support of more than six in 10 health care voters.

CONGRESS -- There are better signs for congressional incumbents in general. Thirty-nine percent of registered voters approve of the job Congress is doing overall while 57 percent disapprove -- no great shakes, but up from a 32-65 percent rating in May (the increase was led by a nine-point advance in approval among Republicans). Similarly, 60 percent of registered voters approve of the job their own representative is doing. It was 56 percent last month, its lowest since 1994.

Approval of the Republican-controlled Congress is another important factor in the election: Among those who approve, 58 percent back their Republican candidate; among those who disapprove, 59 percent support the Democrat.

GROUPS -- After favoring their Republican House candidate by nine points in 2004, married women are now splitting their vote. Six in 10 unmarried men and women alike favor Democratic candidates; married men support Republicans, 53-38 percent (compared with 58-40 percent in 2004).

Democrats are maintaining their edge thanks largely to support among independents. Fifty-three percent of independents support the Democratic candidate in their district, just 27 percent the Republican. However, another swing voter group, white Catholics, have moved away: Last month they backed Democrats by 54-36 percent. This month they divide about evenly between the parties -- helping the Republicans narrow the gap.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 5-7, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including 863 registered voters. The results have a three-point error margin for the full sample, 3.5 points for registered voters. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

Click here for PDF with full questionnaire and results.

Click here for more ABC News polls.