Including more than 2010, when GOP rode the Tea Party wave to sweep into power in the House. Hmm, wonder why?
WASHINGTON — Democrats hoping improvements in the economy’s course and the Affordable Care Act’s implementation would level the playing field for November’s elections should brace themselves.
A nationwide USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll shows the strongest tilt to Republican candidates at this point in a midterm year in at least two decades, including before partisan “waves” in 1994 and 2010 that swept the GOP into power. Though Election Day is six months away — a lifetime in politics — at the moment, Democrats are saddled by angst over the economy, skepticism about the health care law and tepid approval of the president.
“People should start opening their eyes and seeing we’re not on track,” says Brenna Collins, 32, a small-business owner from Kasson, Minn., who was among those surveyed. “Not exactly saying Republicans are right but that things need to change.”
By more than 2-1, 65%-30%, Americans say they want the president elected in 2016 to pursue different policies and programs than the Obama administration, rather than similar ones.
In the 2014 elections, registered voters are inclined to support the Republican candidate over the Democrat in their congressional district by 47%-43%. That 4-percentage-point edge may seem small, but it’s notable because Democrats traditionally fare better among registered voters than they do among those who actually cast ballots, especially in low-turnout midterms.
“It’s huge,” says former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, who twice chaired the Republican congressional campaign committee. He says its potential impact is tempered only because House Republicans already hold a 233-seat majority, including most swing seats. Even so, the friendly landscape, if it holds, could help the GOP bolster its majority in the House and gain the six seats needed to claim control of the Senate.
Their lead in the generic congressional ballot is the biggest at this point for Republicans in the past 20 years. In 1994, when the GOP would gain control of the House and Senate, Democrats held a 2-point advantage in the spring of the election year. In 2010, when Republicans would win back the House, the two sides were even.
The poll of 1,501 adults, including 1,162 registered voters, was taken April 23-27. It has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.
Other findings help explain the Democrats’ woes. By more than 2-1, Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. They remain downbeat about the economy. They aren’t persuaded that the Affordable Care Act is going to help them and their families. Even the president’s supporters worry he is a political liability for fellow Democrats.
The president’s job approval rating remains anemic in the new survey, at 44% approve, 50% disapprove.
“I still support Obama,” Sandra McSwain, 70, a retired teacher from Brownwood, Texas, said in a follow-up interview. (She identifies herself as “always been Democrat, no matter what.”) But she adds, “In Texas, it is suicide to even be seen with him,” noting that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis dodged a chance to be photographed with the president.
Of Republicans, McSwain grumbles, “You’d think these people are running against Obama, the way he’s mentioned in every advertisement.”
IT’S STILL THE ECONOMY
As usual, the economy matters most.
Voters say the most important issue affecting their vote for Congress this fall is the jobs situation, cited by 27% of those surveyed. Health care is first for 21%, followed by the federal budget deficit, named by 19%. Only education and national security also break into double digits.
Though economists report an economic recovery is underway, most people say they aren’t feeling its benefits. By more than 2-1, 40%-17%, they assess the nation’s economic conditions as poor, not excellent or good. That’s essentially unchanged from a year ago.
Nor is there evidence of increased optimism about the future. One in four predict economic conditions will be better a year from now, but another one in four predict they will be worse. Half don’t expect it to change.
“I think the economy is getting better, but slowly — too slowly,” says Ronald Moore, 65, of San Francisco. “It’s just at a standstill.”
The survey was taken before Friday’s report that the nation’s unemployment rate had dropped to 6.3%. Still, only 27% say there are plenty of jobs available in their community. That perception essentially hasn’t changed over the past year even as the jobless rate has declined by more than a percentage point.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi disputes the analysis that Democratic prospects are in peril, saying the party’s candidates will be helped by a focus on pocketbook issues such as raising the minimum wage — and by antipathy to the GOP. “We have the Republicans,” she says in discussing Democratic assets. For them, “the agenda is nothing, and the timetable is never.”
Most of those surveyed say their own families aren’t prospering: 39% rate their financial situation as “only fair” and 23% call it poor. They do see a bit of hope on the horizon. Looking ahead, 59% say things are getting better for them, though most say only a little better. One in four say things are getting worse.
“My situation has improved,” says John Konicek, 41, an engineer from Estero, Fla. “I have a secure job, and my home (value) has increased.”
“Food out here is expensive; gas is going up; rent is going up; I don’t get a raise,” frets Edward Trivette, 55, of Forgan, Okla. He says he often can’t afford to buy the sort of meat he processes at the plant where he works. He doesn’t see the federal government doing much to help. “It’s very, very frustrating when you try to make a living for your family and Congress and Washington is against you.”
Perhaps the most disturbing sign for Democrats: By 43%-39%, Americans say following the economic policies of Republican congressional leaders would do more to strengthen the economy over the next few years than following the policies of the Obama administration.
“My local economy stinks, and the national economy is not much better,” says Loree McOwen, 50, of Dryden, N.Y. She works as an administrative assistant at Cornell; her husband has been unemployed for three years. Though she’s voted a straight Democratic ticket in the past, she says she won’t do that this time.
“To be honest, I’m very disillusioned right now,” she says. “I just want to vote for who is the best person for me now, and it may be a Republican or a Democrat.”
‘WE OUGHT TO CLEAN HOUSE’
The disenchantment among some about the president and Democrats doesn’t necessarily mean Republicans have won them over. Only 23% approve of the job Republican congressional leaders are doing. Thirty-two percent approve of Democratic congressional leaders — a better standing, if not exactly a good one.
“We ought to clean house and get rid of 99% of them,” says Vicky Lovaas, 58, of Kenai, Alaska, an independent who leans to the GOP. “They go down to Washington and get their parking spot and tell the rest of us to go take a flying leap.”
The desire to shake things up seems to hurt Democrats more than Republicans, even though the GOP controls the House. By 53%-43%, those surveyed say the issue of which party controls Congress will be a factor in their vote. Those who say they feel that way are more likely to support the Republican contender.
What’s more, 26% say they think of their vote as a vote against Obama; 16% as a vote for him. The president looms as more of a drag on Democrats than he was four years ago, when Democratic setbacks cost the party control of the House. Then, by 24%-20%, people saw their vote as a vote for Obama.
Even the president acknowledged the problem in a humorous speech at the White House Correspondents Association dinner Saturday. “Of course, now that it’s 2014, Washington is obsessed on the midterms,” he said. “Folks are saying that with my sagging poll numbers, my fellow Democrats don’t really want me campaigning with them. And I don’t think that’s true — although I did notice the other day that Sasha needed a speaker at career day, and she invited Bill Clinton.”
President Obama laughs at Joel McHale’s jokes during the White House Correspondents Association dinner May 3 in Washington.(Photo: Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty Images)
Democrats are significantly less motivated by their support for Obama, a factor that could complicate the critical effort to turn out voters. In 2010, 47% cast a vote to show their support for him; that’s dropped to 31%. Pelosi and other Democratic leaders say the party will tap the sort of sophisticated on-the-ground efforts that Obama pioneered to boost turnout.
The president continues to be a strong motivating force for the other side: 46% of Republicans say they will cast a vote to show their opposition to him.
“I would definitely go against him because I haven’t exactly agreed with the issues he’s focused on,” says Shalise Gallaher, 22, an office worker from Lexington, Ky. Many voters, she predicts, “will just go for a change.”
Views of the Affordable Care Act haven’t brightened, even after problems with the website were fixed and 8 million people signed up for insurance before the March 31 deadline. In the poll, 41% approve of the law, a record 55% disapprove of it.
Some say they’ve seen the law’s positive impact. Quentin Howell, 37, of Milledgeville, Ga., says he was diagnosed with “a touch of diabetes” two years ago; under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies can’t deny him coverage because of his pre-existing condition. “This is a big issue for me,” he says.
Opposition to the Affordable Care Act continues to be more intense than support for it.
“Obamacare could be a breaking point for who gets my vote,” says Anthony Miniard, 50, of Lynchburg, Ohio. Once a reliable Republican, he became disenchanted with the party. But his opposition to the health care law could push him back to the GOP. He labels the law “a screw-up from Day One” and says, “I don’t know if I would vote for a Democrat that keeps Obamacare going.”
All that said, some people aren’t paying attention to midterm politics, at least not yet.
“I’m really not happy that so much focus gets put on elections when it’s only April or May,” says Skyler McKinley, 22, a student from Lakewood, Colo., who was called in the poll. “It’s not something I’ve really started thinking about.”
Ask him again in the fall.