June 27, 2006

Democrats More Eager to Vote, But Unhappy with Party

Gay Marriage, Inheritance Tax Among the Lowest Public Priorities

Summary of Findings

With less than five months to go before Election Day, Democrats hold two distinct advantages in the midterm campaign that they have not enjoyed for some time. First, Americans continue to say they favor the Democratic candidate in their district, by a 51% to 39% margin. Second, the level of enthusiasm about voting among Democrats is unusually high, and is atypically low among Republicans. In fact, Democrats now hold a voter enthusiasm advantage that is the mirror image of the GOP’s edge in voter zeal leading up to the 1994 midterm election.

Public anger with Congress continues to rise, and anti-incumbent sentiment has reached new highs, according to the latest survey of 1,501 Americans conducted June 14-19 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The sour public mood currently favors the minority party, as 46% of Democratic voters say they are more enthusiastic about voting than usual, compared with just 30% of Republicans. In October 1994, Republicans held a comparable advantage on this measure (by 45%-30%).

But Democratic zeal is mostly driven by anger toward President Bush and Republican leaders, not support for Democratic leaders. Just half of Democrats approve of the job performance of Democratic leaders in Congress; by contrast, 58% of Republicans give positive ratings to GOP leaders. And 64% of Democrats say their party is doing only a fair or poor job in standing up for its traditional positions on such things as protecting the interests of minorities and helping the poor.

The question of which party controls Congress has the potential to be a major factor in the 2006 midterms. Fully 58% of voters say this issue will factor in their vote, up from 47% in 2002 and 45% in 1998. Partisan control of Congress is a major issue for Democrats, but nearly half of independent voters – who in past midterms have given less regard to party control – say the makeup of Congress matters to them. And most independents who say this plan to vote for the Democrat in their district.

Public anger with Congress and its leaders has not abated despite Republican efforts to make progress on various policy issues. The proportion saying the current Congress has achieved less than previous ones has climbed to 45%, double the number who said this in the 2002 or 1998 midterms, and higher than the number who expressed frustration with Congress in 1994 (38%). Republican leaders in Congress are blamed for this failure, but Democratic leaders in Congress are not benefitting from this criticism. More Americans disapprove than approve of the job GOP leaders are doing by a 53% to 30% margin; dissatisfaction with Democratic leaders is nearly as high (50% disapprove, 32% approve.)

Education, the economy and health care are the leading concerns for voters this year – roughly eight-in-ten say each is very important to them personally. By contrast, many of the issues that have recently gotten attention – either on Capitol Hill or in the media – rank among the least important to voters. Barely a third (34%) say the issue of gay marriage is very important, and only somewhat more rank abortion, global warming, ending the inheritance tax, and government surveillance programs as very important. While gay marriage is more important to Republican voters than Democratic voters, even here it comes far down the list below such issues as terrorism and homeland security, the economy, and immigration.

Democratic Voters Motivated

Democrats are more enthusiastic about the upcoming election than was the case in 2002, 1998 or especially 1994, when they were particularly ambivalent about going to vote. By comparison, far fewer Republicans say they are looking forward to voting this November than in recent midterms. Just 30% of Republicans say they are more enthusiastic about voting this year than usual, down from 44% four years ago; 41% in June 1998; and 45% prior to the 1994 midterm election.

The heightened Democratic enthusiasm is particularly notable among liberal Democrats, 53% of whom are more interested in voting this year than usual. The partisan gap in enthusiasm is even visible among independents – those who lean Democratic are considerably more eager to vote than those who lean Republican. Overall, 47% of voters who plan to vote Democratic this fall say they are more enthusiastic about voting than usual, compared with just 30% of voters who plan to vote Republican.

The higher level of enthusiasm among Democratic voters is linked to two underlying attitudes: anger at the president and optimism about Democrats chances in the fall. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those who plan to vote for the Democratic candidate in their district think of their vote this fall as a vote against George W. Bush. These anti-Bush voters are significantly more motivated to vote – 52% say they are more eager to vote this year than usual, compared with 39% among those who say Bush is not a factor in their vote.

Democratic voters also have an optimistic outlook for the fall – 64% think the party will do better in this year’s congressional elections than it has in other recent elections. The heightened expectations among Democrats are strongly linked with increased interest in voting. More than half (55%) of Democratic voters who expect the party to make progress in the fall say they are more enthusiastic about voting this year, compared with just 34% who see the party doing about the same – or worse – as in recent elections.

Republicans, by contrast, have modest expectations for the fall elections. Just 19% think the GOP will do better in this year’s midterms than in recent elections; 18% expect the party to fare worse; and 58% say the Republican Party will do about the same as it has in recent elections.

How Democratic And Republican Voters Differ

Anti-incumbent sentiment is a significant factor among voters who are favoring the Democrats this fall. They are nearly twice as likely as Republican voters to say the member from their district should not be reelected (39% vs. 22%). More broadly, two-thirds of Democratic voters say the want to see most members lose their reelection bids this fall. But frustration with incumbents is high even among GOP voters, 43% of whom say that most members do not deserve reelection.

Among those favoring the Democratic candidate in their district, 68% say they are considering party control of Congress as they make up their mind. A slimmer majority (55%) of Republican voters say the same. The 2006 midterm is a more nationalized election in the eyes of Democratic voters – 34% say that national issues weight most heavily in their vote compared with just 26% of those who plan to vote Republican. In contrast, Republican voters are more focused on candidate character and experience (38%) than their Democratic counterparts (28%).

Voters who lean Democratic are also nearly twice as likely as Republican voters to say that this Congress has accomplished less than other recent Congresses (57% vs. 30%). But Democratic voters are hardly enthusiastic about their party’s leaders in Congress. Just 46% of voters who favor the Democratic candidate approve of the job Democratic Party leaders are doing, while 41% disapprove. Republican voters, by comparison, have a somewhat more positive view of their party’s Congressional leaders (56% approve, 31% disapprove).

Anti-Incumbency: Shades of 1994?

Anti-incumbent sentiment has risen since April, and is on par with surveys taken on the eve of the critical 1994 midterm twelve years ago. Nearly a third of voters (32%) say they do not want to see the representative in their district reelected, up from 28% two months ago. And 57% say they would like to see most members of Congress replaced this fall, up from 53% in April.

While criticism of Congress is hardly unusual, the level of explicit anti-incumbent sentiment – against both individual members and Congress as a whole – is substantially higher than in most previous midterms. In 1998 and 2002, just 20% and 23%, respectively, wanted to see their member of Congress not returned to office, well below the 32% who take that view today. In those elections only about four-in-ten said they did not want to see most members reelected; currently, 57% of voters express that sentiment.

Among recent midterms, only in 1994 was voter anger at incumbents about as high. On the eve of the 1994 election, 29% of voters said they did not want their member to be reelected, and 56% wanted most members of Congress replaced. The comparable figures today are 32% and 57%, respectively.

If anything, partisan polarization in attitudes toward incumbents may be greater than was the case in October 1994. Currently, Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to say their member should be voted out of office (36% vs 20%). In 1994, when Democrats held a majority in both the House and the Senate, 34% of Republicans did not want their member returned to office, while 27% of Democrats said the same.

What is particularly notable this year is the anti-incumbent sentiment expressed by independent voters. Fully 38% of independents want their member of Congress to be replaced, significantly more than said the same in 1994 (29%).

In addition, two-thirds of Democrats (66%) want most members replaced, compared with 40% of Republicans (in 1994 it was 62% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats.) Independents share the Democrats’ frustration with the current Congress, just as they shared GOP’s frustration in 1994. Currently, 63% of independents want most members of Congress replaced; 65% of independent voters said that on the eve of the 1994 election.

Partisan Control a Factor

The question of which party controls Congress is a factor for more voters this year than in the past, particularly Democrats and independents. Fully 72% of Democrats say that party control of Congress is a factor in their vote this year, up from 59% in June 2002 and 53% in June1998. Just 54% of Republicans see the issue of who controls Congress as a factor in their vote, unchanged from the past two midterms. (This question was not asked in the lead-up to the 1994 midterm.)

The percentage of independents who see party control as a factor in their vote also is up sharply – roughly half (48%) of independents say this will be a factor in their vote. In the past two midterms, barely a quarter of independents (28%) said this issue mattered to them. Independent voters who take this view favor the Democratic candidate over the Republican in their district by a wide 57% to 34% margin.

Bush Hurting GOP Prospects

As was the case four years ago, George W. Bush is playing a more central role in the minds of midterm voters than most recent presidents. In fall 2002, about a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a greater number of voters described their congressional vote as a vote in support of the president than in any prior midterm election going back to 1982. By roughly two-to-one (29% to 15%) more said they were voting for, not against, Bush in the 2002 midterm.

Today, Bush remains a pivotal figure in the midterm election, but in a different way. Fully 38% say their vote this fall is a vote against George W. Bush. This is up from 15% four years ago, and is far more than ever measured during the Reagan administration, the presidency of Bush’s father, or the Clinton administration. In the polarized election of 1994, just 23% described their vote as a vote against Bill Clinton.

The drag that Bush places on Republican prospects has only increased since the beginning of the year. In February, 31% described their midterm vote as a vote against Bush, compared with 38% today. Roughly two-thirds of Democrats (65%) say they are voting against Bush as they cast their ballot this fall, up from 55% in February. The percentage of independent voters who say the same has increased from 31% to 39% since February. In the meantime, the number of Republicans who see their midterm vote as a vote in support of the president has fallen from 43% to 37%.

Frustration with Congress

Despite efforts to address immigration, taxes, Iraq, and other issues in the past few months, voters’ impressions of Congress’ effectiveness are trending negative. The share who say Congress has accomplished less than other recent Congresses stands at 45% today, up slightly from 41% in April, and double the number who felt this way about Congress in June of 2002. In October 1994, 38% of voters believed Congress was underachieving, somewhat fewer than the percentage saying that today.

Democrats, not surprisingly, are the most critical of Congress – 59% say the institution has done less than usual this year. But nearly half of independents (48%) share this opinion, as well as 27% of Republicans. The partisan nature of the criticism of Congress’ achievements marks a clear difference with the election of 1994. During that campaign, Democrats, Republicans and independents were largely in agreement in their view that Congress had accomplished less than usual.

Both Parties Seen Negatively

The blame for Congress’ lack of productivity falls squarely on the Republican leadership. Among voters who say this Congress is underperforming, 56% blame Republican leaders, 17% Democratic leaders. But the Democratic leadership is receiving little praise despite GOP troubles.

Public views of the job performance of Republican leaders has grown more negative; just 30% of Americans approve, while 53% disapprove. But approval of Democratic leaders has tracked slightly downward as well and stands at 32% today.

Independents disapprove of the performance of both party’s leaders by margins of more than two-to-one. Job approval is even limited within each party’s base. Just 50% of Democrats approve of the Democratic leaders in Congress, while somewhat more Republicans (58%) approve of the job their leaders are doing.

In general, Democrats remain largely dissatisfied with the direction of their political party – just 34% of Democrats or independents who lean toward the Democratic Party believe that the party is doing a good job these days in standing up for its traditional positions on such things as protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and needy, and representing working people. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say the Democratic Party is doing only a fair or poor job in this regard. Democrats’ evaluations of their party has been decidedly negative for nearly two years.

Republicans, too, have grown more critical of their party’s performance in recent years, though they remain more satisfied than the Democrats. Currently, 42% of Republicans and independents who lean Republican say the party is doing an excellent or good job in standing up for its traditional positions on such things as reducing the size of government, cutting taxes an
d promoting conservative social values. This is down from 47% in April, and 61% two years ago during the 2004 campaign.

Ideology plays a role in how people evaluate their parties. Conservative Republicans remain more satisfied with the party’s stand on key principles than moderates in the party. Nearly half of conservative Republicans (48%) feel the party is doing an excellent or good job standing up for traditional party positions, compared with 34% of moderates. And it is the conservatives within the Democratic party who are more satisfied as well. Nearly half of conservatives who identify more with the Democratic Party (46%) see the party as doing an excellent or good job standing up for core principles, compared with just 30% of both moderates and liberals within the party.

Voter Priorities

Education, the economy, health care, Social Security, Iraq, and terrorism rank as the most important issues for voters this year, with roughly three-quarters or more saying each of these is personally very important to them. Taxes, the job situation, and energy policy were not far behind, with roughly two-thirds picking these issues.

By contrast, government surveillance programs, the inheritance tax, abortion, global warming, and gay marriage rank as much less important priorities, with gay marriage in particular mentioned by only one-third of voters (34%) as very important to them. About as many (33%) say the issue of gay marriage is “not at all important.”

While the top tier of issues is important to voters across the demographic and political spectrum, other issues matter more to certain voters than to others.

Education is a major factor in views of the importance of many issues, including raising the minimum wage, Social Security, and a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.

Increasing the minimum wage is a high priority for voters with a high school education or less (68%), especially in comparison with voters who have a college degree (33%). Nearly all voters with less education rate Social Security as very important (86%); fewer college graduates do so (60%).

But there is an even larger gap in views of the importance of a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning; 67% of voters with a high school education or less believe this is very important, compared with just 28% among college graduates.

Voter priorities also differ by religion and age. For example, about as many white evangelical Christians regard abortion (67%) and a ban on flag burning (64%) as very important as say that about taxes (68%) and the job situation (66%). Compared with older voters, younger voters are much more concerned about increasing the minimum wage and far less concerned about flag burning, eliminating the inheritance tax, and the federal budget deficit.

Politically, the priorities of Democratic and Republican voters diverge dramatically on some issues. The issue of terrorism and homeland security tops the list of issues that are important to Republicans (with 84% saying it is very important), whereas it ranks seventh on the list of top priorities for Democrats (at 69% very important). Conversely, health care is the top issue for Democrats, but is seventh on the list for Republicans.

Both Republican and Democratic voters agree that the economy and education are important issues, and both place Iraq near the top of their lists (though a somewhat greater number of Democrats than Republicans – 78% vs. 72% – rate it as very important).

Democrats place much higher priority on environmental issues and global warming than do Republicans. In contrast, Republicans rate a constitutional ban on flag burning, elimination of the inheritance tax, and abortion much higher than do Democrats.

Immigration and Other Issues

The issues of Iraq, immigration, and gay marriage have attracted a great deal of attention from Congress over the past several months and all three are thought to be potentially influential in the fall elections.

Iraq, in particular, is a top-tier issue with the public (74% very important)the survey finds that the public remains closely divided on the question of whether to keep troops in Iraq (50%) or bring them home as soon as possible (45%).

Not only does the Iraq war divide the public, but the same number of voters on each side of the question see it as very important. Among those who favor keeping troops in Iraq, 74% call this a very important issue; among those who think the U.S. should bring the troops home as soon as possible, 75% say the issue is very important.

The pattern in opinions of the importance of immigration is quite different, however. Asked which of two policy options they favor, a majority of the poll’s respondents – 56% – support increasing border protection and also creating a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens. Fewer (40%) favor focusing mostly on border protection and stiffer penalties for people who enter the U.S. illegally.

However, voters who emphasize enforcement and penalties rate the issue as more important than voters who also favor a “path to citizenship” for some illegal immigrants. Among those who want policy to focus mostly on border protection, 72% say the immigration issue is very important; among voters who favor enforcement plus the creation of a way for some illegal immigrants to become citizens, just 48% say the issue is very important.

On gay marriage, another issue that has been the focus of congressional attention, there is also a difference in the priority placed on it by people on different sides of the question, with those opposing gay marriage assigning it greater importance. Nearly half of those who oppose gay marriage (45%) call it a very important issue. Supporters of gay marriage put even less priority on it, with just 27% saying it is very important.

Overall support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally has declined significantly since March. In the current poll, 33% favor gay marriage and 55% are opposed; four months ago, 39% were in favor and 51% opposed. Opponents of gay marriage were asked if they thought a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage is a good or bad idea; of the total sample, 33% said it was a good idea and 19% said it was a bad idea.