April 3, 1998

Democratic Congressional Chances Helped by Clinton Ratings

Jonesboro Compels News Audiences

Introduction and Summary

President Clinton’s lofty performance ratings are benefiting the Democratic Party, which is now in a stronger position with American voters than it has been for some time. In contrast, continuing negative perceptions of Republican congressional leaders are hamstringing the image of their party. By the biggest margin of the decade, the public sees the Democrats as the party better able to bring about changes the country needs. The Democrats enjoy a big advantage in public confidence over their Republican rivals on key national agenda items such as improving education, jobs, health care and the environment. Generic support for Democratic congressional candidates has also significantly increased over the past year.

A nationwide Pew Research Center poll conducted this past weekend found 52% of registered voters inclined to vote for Democratic congressional candidates, 40% for Republican candidates and 8% undecided. A comparable mid-1997 poll found a narrow 48% to 45% margin of support in the Democrats’ favor.

The new opinion survey also finds improved evaluations of Democrats relative to the Republicans since 1994 on seven of 11 issue questions. The GOP now gets a clearly greater vote of confidence on only three items: promoting morality and personal responsibility, making America competitive in the world economy and making wise decisions about foreign policy. Significantly, Americans are evenly divided over which party is better able to deal with taxes and reduce crime, two issues that have traditionally favored the GOP. (See box on page 2.)

Clinton’s high approval rating — 65% in this survey — accounts for some of his party’s new-found support. Fully 70% of those who approve of his job performance express probable support for Democratic House candidates next fall. Public opinion about Republican leaders at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue is far less positive. Just 43% of Americans approve of the job GOP congressional leaders are doing, and only 62% of those people say they will vote for Republican candidates in November.

Republican leaders are even more poorly regarded personally. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is rated favorably by 36% and unfavorably by 49%, which is nonetheless a distinct improvement over his 28% to 65% rating of a year ago. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott continues to be an unknown quantity to most Americans and his evaluations are mixed from those who know him: 16% favorable, 18% unfavorable. In contrast, Vice President Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton are rated favorably by 59% and 65%, respectively.

But Strong Reelect Sentiment

A high level of expressed support for incumbents is the best sign in the survey for GOP chances of retaining control of the House. Fully 63% of registered voters say they would like to see their incumbent reelected. That percentage slipped to as low as 49% in 1994, just before voters gave control of the Congress to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years. As the election nears, the generic measure of party support is a better indicator of the likely outcome of the election than is support for incumbents.1 But this strong early endorsement of incumbents reflects the ability of the GOP majority to go back to its districts and make a case for continuity with voters.

Gender and race continue to be the most important demographic correlates of support for congressional candidates. Generic support for the two parties is about even among whites, but runs seven-to-one for Democrats among African Americans. Women favor Democratic candidates by a 56% to 37% margin, while preferences are about even among men (47% to 45%). There are also some clear generational patterns in the Pew survey results. At one extreme seniors favor Democrats over Republicans 55% to 38%, while the margin narrows to 47% to 40% among Generation Xers. Middle aged people’s preferences fall between the two extremes.

  1. The generic measure is a good indicator of the popular vote for Congress which bears a historic relationship to the number of seats won by each party.