October 21, 1998

GOP Congressional Lead Not Undercut by Backlash

Turnout Indicators Slightly Below '94 Level

Introduction and Summary

The House of Representatives’ decision to hold impeachment hearings has not significantly eroded support for Republicans. Despite a public backlash against proceeding with the inquiry, Republican congressional candidates continue to hold a small lead over Democrats among likely voters nationwide. Further, the Pew Research Center’s latest survey includes an oversample of voters in the 105 most competitive districts, where it found Republican House candidates running ahead of Democrats by 48%-to-44%, a margin almost identical to the GOP’s 48%-to-43% advantage nationwide.

The current Republican edge is comparable to that obtained in three previous Pew surveys conducted since June. All of these polls, including the current one, found Republicans owing their lead to a disproportionate advantage among likely voters.1 The parties are at parity when preferences are based on all registered voters.

There is no indication that the Republican turnout advantage has grown since Clinton’s admission of misleading the public about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the release of the Starr report or the broadcast of Clinton’s grand jury testimony. Moreover, the GOP’s likely turnout advantage is no greater than it was in mid-October 1994.2 (The Republicans’ narrow victory in the popular vote that year was a first in recent decades and as a result led to a major turnover in Congress. A similar vote this year would lead to a status quo outcome since the GOP continues to hold a majority of House seats.)

These findings are based on a national survey of 1,532 registered voters conducted October 14-18, 1998. The study has a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points. For more information on the oversample in competitive House races, see the questionnaire section.

Several indicators of voter turnout, however, are slightly below what they were in 1994 at a comparable period, suggesting that turnout may be lower this year. Slightly fewer voters say they plan to vote, rate themselves 10 or 9 on a ten-point voting scale, say they always vote, and report they have given a lot of thought to the upcoming elections. Only 35% of the voting age population answered affirmatively to five turnout questions in 1998, compared to 41% who did so in October 1994.

The slippage in likely voters does not appear related to the escalation of the White House scandal. Turnout indicators were pointing downward as early as June, well before Clinton’s admission and serious talk of impeachment. In fact, the current survey provides little indication that voters see the congressional elections as a mandate on impeachment.

Most voters say that either state and local issues or a candidate’s experience and character will be most influential in how they vote. Less than half (42%) say their vote will be either for Clinton (19%) or against him (23%). Very few mention Clinton or the scandal as the most important problem facing the nation or as an issue they want candidates to discuss (4% and 3%, respectively).

However, when impeachment is raised as an issue, 40% of voters say a candidate’s likely position on it will be a factor, suggesting the issue could have more impact than is apparent today. Democrats more often say a candidate’s stand on impeachment would be a motivating factor than do either Republicans or Independents. In that regard, many Democrats (46%) say that their party’s congressional members should have been more loyal to the president. Republicans, on the other hand, are mostly satisfied that GOP members have acted appropriately (58%).

Following the vote to open an impeachment inquiry, the Pew Research Center survey found job approval ratings for Republican congressional leaders slipping along with support for reelecting incumbents. As most of this change occurred among loyal Democratic constituencies, it is having little impact on support for Democrats and Republicans on the generic ballot question.

Cite this publication: “GOP Congressional Lead Not Undercut by Backlash.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (October 21, 1998) http://www.people-press.org/1998/10/21/gop-congressional-lead-not-undercut-by-backlash/, accessed on July 22, 2014.

  1. Likely voters are classified based on their answers to eight "turnout" questions, including intention to vote, past voting history, thought given to the election, etc.
  2. Currently, the GOP draws 5 percentage points more from likely voters than from registered voters. In October 1994, the GOP drew 4 percentage points more from likely voters than from registered voters.