April 5, 1996

Democratic Congressional Prospects Improve

More of the Public's Soundbites

Introduction and Summary

Criticism of the GOP legislative agenda and the President’s improved standing in the polls now threaten prospects for continued Republican control of the House. Generic support for GOP Congressional candidates has significantly eroded over the past six months. While things are looking up for the Democrats, there may be worrisome parallels to 1992 in Bill Clinton’s current (53% to 41%) lead over Bob Dole. It is almost identical in size and character to George Bush’s lead over Clinton four years ago at this time. Now, as then, members of the challenger’s party have yet to rally around their candidate, and the challenger’s personal strengths are not apparent in voter preferences.

A nationwide Pew Research Center poll of 1116 voters conducted this past weekend found 49% inclined to vote for Democratic Congressional candidates, 44% for Republican candidates and 7% undecided. While this lead is of marginal statistical significance, support for Republican candidates has declined in three successive nationwide surveys. Growing support for Democratic candidates among women, older voters and middle to lower income groups accounts for much of the change observed in Congressional voting intentions.

These same groups have contributed substantially to Clinton’s personal comeback. And the fortunes of Congressional Democrats are very much tied to Bill Clinton’s standing in the Presidential race. Fully 80% of those who support Clinton against Dole say they would vote for a Democratic House candidate, if the election were being held today. A slightly larger percentage of Dole supporters (83%) say they would vote Republican.

The President is on an upswing with the public. His approval ratings are at a three year high in our survey series. There are even some signs that people are less critical of the “way things are going in the country.” The percentage satisfied with conditions rose to 28% in the current survey, from the 23% level where it has been for most of Clinton’s term.

While Clinton is doing better, there is little indication that voters have given Dole as good a look as they will in the coming months. Republicans, uncharacteristically, are less supportive of their party’s candidate (83%) than are Democrats (91%). The poll results also indicate that most of the challenger’s current support is anti-Clinton, rather than pro-Dole. This was exactly the profile of Clinton’s support four years ago at this time, when he trailed Bush by about the same margin as Dole now trails him. But four years ago, challenger Clinton was a largely unknown Governor, not the Senate Majority leader.

Reflecting the public’s lack of focus on Dole, it does not find him more attractive than the President in his supposedly strong areas, or even on any of Clinton’s personal weak points. By a modest margin the Pew sample picked Dole over Clinton for being “honest and truthful” and “keeping his promises.” But respondents were evenly divided as to which candidate is best described by the phrase “can get things done,” and more of them selected Clinton for “sharing my values.” In contrast, Clinton was chosen over Dole by a wide margin for “caring about people like me,” “having new ideas” and being “personally likable.” Even 44% of Dole’s supporters picked Clinton as more likeable than Dole.

But if Dole has yet to capitalize on his strengths, he is not being hurt by his presumed chief weakness, his age. Only 26% of voters say that they are concerned that the veteran Kansas Senator may be too old to serve as President. Interestingly, voters from Dole’s generation are much more dubious on this score. Fully 41% of those 65 years and older are concerned about Dole’s age. People worried about Dole’s age most often question his stamina (42%) and his understanding of the younger generations (41%). Few worry that the Republican candidate has old fashioned ideas. Seniors who worry about Dole’s age were more concerned about the physical demands of the job than about his being out of touch with younger people.

The “None of the Above” Voter

The Pew Center survey found substantial early support for possible third party candidate Ross Perot and even more of a voter base for an “unnamed independent candidate” when matched against Clinton and Dole. At this stage, Perot seems to take away as many votes from Clinton as from Dole. However, a stronger independent candidate would hurt Dole more than Clinton, the survey indicates. Perot polls 16%, compared to 44% for Clinton and 35% for Dole in a three-way race. An unnamed independent attracts the support of 20%, with Dole slipping to 30% and Clinton maintaining the support of 45% of respondents.

Perot’s current backers are quite different in character from his 1992 supporters. In fact, only 54% of those who voted for him four years ago would back him if he were on the ballot now. The new Perot voters are less affluent and have less of a Republican pedigree than those who cast a ballot for him in ’92. As a group they are more critical of both Clinton and the GOP leadership than the public at large. The new Perot voters are more dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. They are especially critical of the political system, displeased with economic conditions, and anxious about the future.

Governance Not Politics

More Americans want President Clinton to take the lead in solving national problems today than was the case in late 1994, just after the GOP’s midterm win. But by and large the public wants a bipartisan approach. Few Democrats (36%) want the President to challenge the GOP leadership more, and similarly few Republicans want Dole to take a tougher stand with the White House. Accordingly the public is prepared to credit the President and the Congress about equally if progress is made on important issues. It is also disposed to blame both about equally if no progress is made.

Call in the Government?

At least six-in-ten voters give high priority to Washington agenda items such as balancing the budget (72%), welfare reform (70%), assuring the portability of health insurance (66%) and tax reform (59%). Fewer (46%) rate immigration law reform as a high priority and much fewer (23%) feel that way about limiting awards in lawsuits that involve defective products. Republicans give higher priority to balancing the budget and immigration, while Democrats are more interested in health insurance reform.

Although the public gives high priority to largely Republican agenda items, it favors a classic Democratic approach to dealing with peoples’ financial anxieties. By a margin of 54% to 43%, Pew’s respondents favored an approach that included such things as a minimum wage hike, government job training programs and incentives for corporations to treat their employees better, rather than an approach that cuts taxes, reduces regulations and cuts government. Even one-third of Republicans preferred the more “progressive” approach.