April 28, 2010 -- A third of registered voters are inclined to reelect their representatives in Congress, the fewest since the Republican Party rode voter discontent to control of the House and Senate 16 years ago, according to a new ABC News-Washington Post poll.
Nearly six in 10 said they'll instead look for someone new come the fall elections.
The impact on congressional races is uncertain, and the finding may chill incumbents of all stripes. But the dynamic does have a partisan cast: Republicans and swing-voting independents alike are far more likely than Democrats to be looking for change in Congress.
The finding is one of a variety of challenges for President Obama and his party in the current political climate, ranging from the tactical, such as weak support among senior citizens, to the thematic, including long-running economic anxiety and the hazardous big-government label he now wears.
But the Democrats push back on other measures, including an improved lead in trust to handle the country's problems overall; Obama's continued majority job approval, now 54 percent; and an advantage for the president over the Republicans specifically on three heavy-hitter issues, the economy, health care and financial regulations.
Obama's on a two-day tour this week intended, aides said, to demonstrate his focus on middle-class and Main Street concerns.
Reduced to vote preferences for November, registered voters divide by a narrow 48-43 percent between the Democratic and the Republican candidates in their congressional districts. Support for the Republicans has slipped by 5 points from February, a sign of hope for the in-party, but the margin remains closer than comfortable for the Democrats, given their 11-point advantage in party allegiance more generally. Among independents, the key swing voters, 44 percent prefer the Republican candidates in their congressional district versus 39 percent for the Democrats.
HAZARDS – The results describe a mine-strewn political environment for all comers, with long-running economic anxiety weighting heavily on public attitudes. Nearly three-quarters of Americans, 73 percent, remain worried about the direction of the economy, a view associated with anti-incumbent sentiment. Even as he leads the Republicans on some key issues, Obama's own approval ratings on those same issues are tepid at best, including a 49-49 percent division on the economy and 55 percent disapproval of his handling of the federal deficit.
Thirty-nine percent, moreover, think Obama's policies have improved the economy, and again fewer than half, 44 percent, said he's doing the right amount (versus too much or too little) to represent the interests of middle-class Americans. That's a far cry from the 66 percent who thought he'd look after the middle class in a pre-election poll by ABC and the Post in June 2008.
ABC News Poll: Perceptions of Big Versus Small Government
In another vulnerability for the president, Americans by 56-40 percent said they preferred smaller government with fewer services -- almost exactly the average the past 26 years -- but by a vast 77-15 percent thought Obama prefers the opposite, larger government with more services. That, plus concerns about the deficit, seem ripe for a 2010 campaign theme for the Republican Party.
If big government looks like a fruitful GOP theme, however, Obama, and by extension his party, have ammunition of their own. For one, many more Americans chiefly blamed the economy and the federal deficit alike on George W. Bush rather than on Obama, by 59-25 percent on the economy, by an almost identical 60-22 percent on the deficit.
Additionally, disapproval of Obama's handling of the economy has slipped below 50 percent for the first time since November, and worry about the economy, while still very high, has eased by 8 points from its pre-inaugural level and by 15 points from its peak in fall 2008.
Obama also benefits from personal popularity and, despite the big-government tag, an image as moderate overall. Fifty-seven percent had a favorable opinion of him, with more seeing him "strongly" favorably than strongly unfavorably. And 53 percent continued to see him as "about right" ideologically, steady since last fall, compared with 39 percent "too liberal" (and 5 percent "too conservative").
Intensity on some issues, though, is another challenge for the Democrats. More Americans "strongly" disapproved than strongly approved of Obama's performance on the economy (39 percent vs. 24 percent), on financial regulation (33 vs. 22 percent) and especially on the deficit (42 vs. 20 percent). To the extent that strong sentiment can motivate voter turnout, it's a risk for Obama and an opportunity for the Republicans.
COMPARE – Still, while Obama's ratings on top issues were underwhelming, politics are comparative, and he continued to outpoint the GOP head-to-head. Even with 49 percent approval on handling the economy, he led the Republicans in Congress by 49-38 percent in trust to deal with it. The numbers are almost identical on health care overhaul, on which Obama's approval, also 49 percent, is up 6 points from its February low, given approval of the Democrats' legislative package.
As reported Monday, Obama led the Republicans by 17 points in trust to handle financial regulatory overhaul, despite his own modest 48 percent approval on the issue. And he runs numerically (plus-4 points) ahead in trust to handle the deficit, even while his approval on the deficit is a weak 40 percent.
ABC News Poll: Democrats vs. Republicans
In a party-to-party measure, Americans by 46-32 percent said they trust the Democratic Party over the Republicans to handle the main problems the country faces during the next few years. That slipped for the Republicans from a 43-37 percent division in February. Still, it's nothing like the Democrats' thumping 56-23 percent lead -- the biggest in polling back to the early 1980s -- a month after Obama's election.
This "trust to handle" measure is one on which the Republicans pulled even with the Democrats in October 1994, making it one to watch closely as the 2010 campaign unfolds. The "inclined to reelect" result, meanwhile, matched its low, 32 percent, in a 1991 ABC-Post poll; it was similar, 34 percent, in October 1994.
FAR CRY – Obama's own ratings are a far cry from his one-time glory. His overall approval rating peaked in ABC-Post polls exactly a year ago, at 69 percent, amid honeymoon hopes he'd turn the economy around; it's 15 points lower now. His personal favorability rating was 79 percent just before his inauguration, 22 points higher than today.
Measured against the Republicans, Obama's 11-point advantage in trust to handle the economy today compares with a 37-point lead, 61-24 percent, a year ago, a record for any president in ABC-Post polling. His 10-point lead on health care compares with 28 points last June. And on the deficit, his very slim 4-point edge now compares with 26 points, again last June.
Given his arms-control agreement with Russia and international summit on nuclear terrorism, Obama may be less than delighted with his rating on handling nuclear weapons issues, 49 percent approval, albeit with lower disapproval, 37 percent, and more undecided than on other issues tested in this poll. His best rating is for handling the situation in Afghanistan, with 56 percent approval, including 42 percent among Republicans.
In his overall job approval rating, though, Obama's at a new low among Republicans, 12 percent; among conservatives, 25 percent; and also among liberals, albeit at a still-high 76 percent. He's still popular in his own party, 85 percent approval, and has 52 percent approval among independents.
But Obama's approval rating among young adults, one of the keys to his election in 2008, has eased to 59 percent. And he has 47 percent approval from senior citizens, a more reliable group when it comes to election turnout.
VOTE – Differential turnout can matter especially in midterm elections, in which many fewer people show up to vote than in presidential contests. Among seniors, for example, 87 percent said they're registered to vote, and they divided by 47-41 percent for Republican vs. Democratic candidates. Young adults are more apt to favor Democrats but not at the levels at which they supported Obama. And they're much less likely to be registered to vote.
ABC News Poll: Age Differences, Gender Gap, Party Choices
Beyond age differences, there was also a sharp gender gap in this survey; women favored Democratic over Republicans candidates by 54-37 percent, while men favor Republicans by 50-41 percent. Part of this is because women are simply more apt than men to be Democrats; they're also especially more apt to approve of Obama's handling of health care overhaul.
Many of these differences appear in the fundamental question of preferences for smaller vs. larger government. Beyond Republicans and conservatives, preference for smaller government peaks among seniors (up sharply in the past year to 65 percent, likely related in part to their disenchantment with health care overhaul), men (61 percent, vs. 52 percent among women) and independents (60 percent). All are likely groups for the GOP to target with an Obama-big government message.
Provisos are in order: The generic horse race is a rough gauge, given the role of local issues and personalities in congressional races. Campaigns matter (ask Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani), with the 2010 midterms more than six months off. And in the end, anti-incumbency only counts when it finds a place to go: While it's customary for sizable numbers of Americans to say they'll look around, in the end, most incumbents usually are reelected. The question is whether the Republicans can harness the current sentiment, as they did so successfully 16 years ago.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News-Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 22-25, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.
ABC News polls can be found at ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollingunit