In poll, Republicans gaining political ground on Obama

February 10, 2010

Republicans have significantly narrowed the gap with Democrats on who is trusted to deal with the country’s problems and have sharply reduced several of President Obama’s main political advantages, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey paints a portrait of a restless and dissatisfied electorate at the beginning of a critical election year. More than seven in 10 Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, and as many say they’re inclined to look for new congressional representation as said so in 1994 and 2006, the last times that control of Congress shifted.

Asked how they would vote in the November House elections, Americans split evenly — 46 percent siding with the Democrats, 46 percent with the Republicans. As recently as four months ago, Democrats held a 51 to 39 percent advantage on this question.

Obama’s overall approval rating is holding steady, with 51 percent of respondents giving him positive marks and 46 percent rating him negatively. On the big domestic issues — the economy, health care, jobs and the federal budget deficit — bare majorities of Americans disapprove of the job he is doing.

Only on fighting terrorism does Obama receive majority support for his performance, with 56 percent saying they approve. But the poll shows majority opposition to the administration’s plan to try terrorism suspects in federal courts.

Changes in public attitudes were most apparent when Americans were asked whether they trust Obama or congressional Republicans to handle these issues. Last summer, the president enjoyed advantages of more than 20 points over the GOP on the handling of health care, the economy, the deficit and the threat of terrorism. Those leads have all slipped, reflecting both the partisan polarization that has colored the political landscape for many months and the sharp erosion in support for Obama among independents.

But there is about as much time between now and November as has elapsed since Obama held his June advantages. The president and his allies have started a new political offensive, seeking to rebound from the Democrats’ loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by the late Edward M. Kennedy and salvage their effort to enact comprehensive health-care reform.

Obama has begun to try to appeal to voters who see Washington as broken by stressing his commitment to bipartisanship, while aggressively trying to rebut GOP criticisms of his policies. At the same time, he has sought to refocus his energy on the economy and job creation, which remains the public’s top priority.

When compared with the early months of Obama’s presidency, the GOP’s overall gains are striking. A year ago, Democrats held a 26-point advantage on dealing with the big issues; that lead is now six points. At the one-month mark, Obama’s lead over the Republicans on dealing with the economy was 35 points; it’s now five points.

Signs for November

These findings illustrate why the political landscape looks increasingly favorable for Republicans to pick up House and Senate seats in November, with some handicappers predicting major gains of 25 to 30 seats and Republican House leaders expressing confidence that they can win the 40 seats they need to take back the majority. The president’s political advisers say privately that some losses are likely but that they are looking to keep them to a minimum.

The poll offers some cautionary notes for both parties. The GOP’s image has improved since last year, but a majority of poll respondents still see the party in an unfavorable light (52 percent unfavorable, 44 percent favorable). Fifty percent view the Democratic Party favorably, and 46 percent unfavorably. That marks a new low point for the party in Post-ABC polling.

Slim majorities of independents rate each party negatively, and sizable percentages of that group express skeptical views of both parties. Nearly three in 10 volunteer that they trust “neither” party to handle major issues, and a similar proportion hold unfavorable views of both parties.

Almost half of all poll respondents characterize their mood as generally “anti-incumbent,” with just over a third saying they are “pro-incumbent.” Two-thirds of independents say they would like to look around, the most to say so in polls since October 1994.

The question asking Americans how they plan to vote in House races, known as the generic congressional vote, is an imperfect predictor of elections, but the GOP gains here amplify the extent of the Democrats’ slide since they won the House in 2006. Four years ago, Democrats led Republicans on this question by a wide margin.

Among independents who are registered to vote, it’s now a 51 to 35 percent GOP lead on this question, a mirror image of the Democrats’ advantage among this group of voters on the eve of the 2006 midterms.

Economy remains the key

But the wild card remains the economy, along with public perceptions of recovery.

White House officials hope that an expanding economy will buoy public ratings of Obama’s performance and spare his Democratic allies at the ballot box. They point to fourth-quarter gross domestic product estimates showing a rapidly expanding economy.

But the jobless rate, even after declining from 10 percent to 9.7 percent, remains high, and whatever the statistics may show, Americans remain gloomy.

Overwhelmingly, most of those polled continue to see the economic downturn as raging unabated, with just one in eight saying the recession is over, and a majority saying that in their own experience, the economy has not even started to recover.

Nearly three-quarters of those yet to sense an upswing expect that it will take more than a year for a recovery to kick in. Even among those who say the economy is headed in the right direction, the vast majority see the recovery as “weak.”

This poll was conducted by conventional and cellular telephone Thursday to Monday among a random sample of 1,004 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus three percentage points.
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