September 14, 2006

Democrats Hold Solid Lead; Strong Anti-Incumbent, Anti-Bush Mood

Terrorism Focus Increases, But No GOP Boost

Summary of Findings

As the congressional midterm campaign begins in earnest, the mood of the electorate is sharply drawn. Voters are disappointed with Congress and disapproving of President Bush. Anti-incumbent sentiment, while a bit lower than a few months ago, is far more extensive than in the previous two midterms and remains close to 1994 levels. Moreover, there are indications that voters are viewing the election through the prism of national issues and concerns. Many more voters see their vote as being against the president than at a comparable point in 1994, and a solid majority says party control of Congress will be a factor in their voting decision.

Voters are expressing strong and consistent anti-Republican attitudes. The GOP lags well behind the Democratic Party on nearly all major issues, including the economy, Iraq, education, health care, the environment and the budget deficit. And the Republicans have lost ground in recent years even on such traditional strengths as terrorism and improving the nation’s morality.

As in six previous surveys over the past 12 months, voters by a wide margin say they favor the Democratic congressional candidate in their district (50%-39%). When the sample is narrowed to likely voters, approximately half of registered voters, the Democratic lead is undiminished. That Democrats poll as well among likely voters as among all voters may reflect the fact that Democrats, in contrast to recent campaigns, are more enthusiastic about voting than are Republicans.

Voter preferences in the midterm elections have remained very consistent over the past year. Since September 2005, the Democrats’ advantage in the congressional test ballot has fluctuated only modestly, between nine and 12 points. Democratic gains this year are coming from a range of different groups, including several – like affluent Americans and college graduates – that typically lean Republican.

In addition, Democratic support among women is much greater than in the previous midterm four years ago. And men, who are now about evenly divided in their voter preferences, backed the Republican candidate by a wide margin in 2002. The GOP also is suffering some internal defections, as more moderate and liberal Republican voters say they will support a Democratic candidate than did so in 2002. (For a detailed comparison of voting preferences in 2002 and this year, see page 17.)

The electorate’s discontent with Washington, which surged to record levels in June, is only modestly diminished heading into the fall campaign. Nearly four-in-ten voters (38%) say this Congress has accomplished less than its predecessors; this mirrors the negative assessment of congressional accomplishments in October 1994. As many as 36% say they see their ballot this fall as a vote against the president. Far more voters express this sentiment in the current election cycle than in any midterm campaign dating to 1982.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Sept. 6-10 among 1,507 adults (1,191 registered voters) finds that recent developments related to terrorism – including Bush’s series of speeches on the subject – have raised the profile of the issue with the public. Currently, 14% cite terrorism as the most important problem facing the country, the highest percentage in three years. However, many more people (25%) volunteer that the war in Iraq is the most pressing problem confronting the nation. And there is no evidence that the renewed focus on terrorism has improved Bush’s standing; his job approval rating stands at 37%, unchanged from August.

However, the Republicans continue to retain an advantage in one important dimension. By a wide margin (43%-30%), the GOP is perceived as having stronger political leaders than the Democratic Party. Notably, independents by roughly two-to-one (42%-22%) feel that the Republican Party has stronger political leaders.

The survey finds that the politics of terrorism are less one-sided than in the past. The Republican Party’s advantage over the Democratic Party in dealing with the terrorist threat at home – which was as large as 30 points in January 2002 – has declined to nine points in the current survey. In addition, the public is becoming increasingly skeptical that the U.S. is prevailing in the war on terrorism.

Currently, about as many people say the U.S. is losing the war on terrorism as say it is winning (41% vs. 39%). That represents a significant shift from the presidential campaign of two years ago, when pluralities consistently said the U.S. was winning in the struggle against terrorism.

Public opinion on the Iraq war continues to be stable. The public is evenly divided over whether the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible or maintain troops in Iraq until the country is stabilized (47%-47%). However, there has been a significant increase in the percentage viewing the violence in Iraq as a civil war, rather than an anti-U.S. insurgency.

Currently, half of Americans describe the violence in Iraq as mostly a civil war between competing factions; 37% say it is mostly an insurgency aimed at the U.S. and its allies. In March, opinion on this issue was almost evenly divided, and last December 58% of Americans said they viewed the violence as mostly an insurgency directed against the U.S. and its allies.

While the public is split along partisan lines about almost everything to do with the war, there also are divisions over whether it is appropriate to criticize the war’s handling. Overall, 36% of Americans feel such criticisms “help America’s enemies”; 15% say they “help protect America”; and 42% think that criticisms of the war’s handling neither help America’s enemies nor help protect the country. Conservative Republicans are the only political group in which a majority (59%) says that criticisms of the war’s handling help America’s enemies.

National Problems: Iraq, Terrorism Gain

The percent of Americans who cite terrorism as the most important problem facing the nation has spiked to 14%, up from just 5% in May and the highest in over two years. This shift in attention to the issue of terrorism reflects an overwhelming refocusing of Republican attention on the issue. In May, immigration and gas prices topped the list of Republican concerns, with only 8% citing terrorism as the biggest national issue. Today, fully 23% of Republicans point to terrorism as the nation’s greatest problem, and the focus on immigration and gas prices has faded.

At the same time, the public also places a higher priority on the war in Iraq than it has in nearly a year. Asked to describe the nation’s most important problem, 25% of Americans cite the situation in Iraq, up from 18% in May. This increase is driven primarily by Democrats – 36% of whom cite Iraq as the nation’s biggest problem, up 14 points since May. By comparison, the percent of Republicans and independents who cite Iraq as the biggest problem has not increased significantly.

As the election season reaches full steam, more than twice as many Americans cite foreign or security concerns than economic problems (47% vs. 23%). This balance is similar across party lines, though Republicans and Democrats are citing markedly different issues in their individual answers.

Anti-Incumbent Sentiment Highest Since ’94

The Democrats have held on to their considerable lead in the generic test ballot, as voter unhappiness with Congress remains very high in historical terms. The proportion of Americans who say Congress has accomplished less than usual this year peaked at 45% in June and stands at 38% today. Even so, that matches dissatisfaction with congressional accomplishments in October 1994, and far exceeds levels of dissatisfaction during the 1998 and 2002 midterm campaigns.

Similarly, anti-incumbent sentiment remains higher than at any time since 1994, though down slightly from the early summer. Roughly half of voters (49%) say that most members should not be reelected, compared with 57% in June, and the share saying their own member does not deserve reelection has slipped from 32% to 27% over the same period.

Problems in the GOP Base

One factor working for Democrats is the relatively weak partisan commitment among a segment of the GOP base. Moderate and liberal Republicans, who make up about 30% of Republicans overall, are supporting their party’s candidate at far lower rates than voters in other political groups. About three-quarters of moderate and liberal Republicans (77%) say they would vote for the GOP candidate in their district. By comparison, 94% of conservative Republicans, and an equally large number of all Democrats, say they intend to vote for their party’s candidate this fall.

There are other indications that moderate and liberal Republicans are thinking in less partisan terms this year. Just 37% say that the issue of which party controls Congress next year will be a factor in their vote. Solid majorities in the other partisan groups – including 78% of liberal Democrats – say party control is a factor. Even 44% of independents, who shun partisan labels, say the composition of the next Congress matters to them.

In addition, moderate and liberal Republicans appear little affected by a key campaign message from the Republican leadership this year – that a Democratic majority in Congress will weaken America’s efforts to combat terrorism. Just 37% of moderate and liberal Republicans are very concerned about a weakening of the anti-terrorism effort under Democrats, compared with 61% of conservative Republicans. Among Democrats, there are narrower ideological divisions about the potential consequences of a continued GOP majority.

Fully 60% of conservative and moderate Democrats, along with 73% of liberal Democrats, believe that if Republicans keep control of Congress this fall they will get the U.S. involved in too many military operations overseas.

Democrats Favored on Most Issues

The public favors the Republican Party on only one of 17 issues tested – terrorism. By 41%-32%, more Americans say the Republicans can better deal with the terrorist threat at home. On each of the other issues, Democrats hold either a substantial or slight lead.

Even on such traditional GOP strengths as reducing crime and improving morality, at least as many Americans trust the Democratic Party to do a better job as trust the Republican Party.

The Republican lead on terrorism has narrowed over the past six months. As recently as February, Republicans had a 46% to 30% edge on this issue – about the same margin that the GOP enjoyed in the summer of 2004 and on the eve of the 2002 midterms.

In 2002 the Republican Party also held a sizable advantage as the party better able to make wise decisions about what to do in Iraq. But by 2004, this advantage disappeared, and today the Democratic Party has a seven-point advantage in handling Iraq (40% vs. 33%).

The survey updates views on the parties across a wide range of issues, and in most cases confidence in the Republican Party has fallen slightly over the past six months. But the Republican Party continues to hold a substantial lead in terms of having the “stronger” political leaders – 43% say the GOP has stronger leaders, compared to 30% who see the Democratic Party’s leaders as stronger.

This is a narrower margin than in April, when Republicans held a 53% to 26% edge in this area, but still stands out as one of the few Republican advantages going into the election season.

What People are Talking About

Gasoline and energy prices are far and away the most talked about issues among Americans today. Three-quarters say that it is a subject that comes up “frequently” in conversations with family and friends, and it is a topic of discussion among people of all walks of life and political persuasions. The economy, the war in Iraq, education, and health care are also frequent topics of conversation for most Americans.

Far fewer have regular conversations about government corruption, Social Security or the environment, and just 14% say the topic of gay marriage comes up frequently.

There are stark differences in the topics of conversation between people who intend to vote Democratic and those who intend to vote Republican. Aside from gas and energy concerns, terrorism and morality are the most talked about issues among Republican voters; 57% say the former comes up frequently and 56% the latter, compared with just 44% and 38% of those who say they intend to vote Democratic.

In contrast, Democratic voters are talking about the war in Iraq and the economy more than their Republican counterparts. The war comes up frequently in the conversations of 63% of Democratic and 55% of Republican voters, while the economy comes up among 62% of Democratic voters and 49% of Republican voters. The job situation, too, is discussed by more Democratic (51%) than Republican (34%) voters.

There also are substantial differences within the party coalitions with respect to what is being discussed. Among liberals who plan to vote for the Democrats, the war in Iraq is the biggest conversation point – 78% talk about it frequently, compared with 5
7% of moderate and conservatives voting Democratic. For their part, moderates and conservatives who intend to vote Democratic are far more likely than liberals to talk about the job situation (59% vs. 36%).

Among those who plan to vote Republican, there are distinctly different levels of interest in moral issues and health care depending on a person’s ideological position. Fully 62% of conservative Republican voters say they frequently talk about moral issues with friends and family, more than any other issue except gas prices. But fewer than half of moderates and liberals who intend to vote Republican in the fall frequently discuss moral issues. By contrast, 63% of moderate and liberal Republican voters say that health care comes up frequently in their conversations with friends and family, compared with just 48% of conservatives who plan to vote Republican.

Iraq Views Mostly Steady

Public optimism about the situation in Iraq has increased slightly since last month, with a small majority of the public (52%) expressing the belief that the U.S. will succeed in establishing a stable democratic government there. Similarly, the number of Americans who say the war is going at least “fairly well” rose six percentage points from last month, to 47%. But optimism was still not as high as in June, following the death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Perceptions about the situation remain highly divided along partisan lines: most Republicans continue to believe that the U.S. will probably or definitely succeed (76% say this), and most also think the war is going at least “fairly well” (72%). A small majority of Democrats believe that the U.S will probably or definitely fail in Iraq (53%), and a much larger majority believes the war is not going well (67%). Independents are much closer to Democrats in these perceptions than they are to Republicans; among independents, 48% say we are likely to fail in Iraq, and 52% think the war is not going well.

With terrorism, the 9/11 anniversary and other stories drawing extensive press coverage, public interest in news from Iraq has fallen somewhat over the past month. A third of Americans say they followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely, down from 41% in August and the lowest level of interest since the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina about a year ago. Nonetheless, an increasing number of Americans – especially Democrats – view the war in Iraq as the most important problem facing the nation.

What to Do Now?

Public attitudes about what should be done in Iraq remain evenly divided and highly polarized along partisan lines. The public splits evenly on the general question of whether to withdraw troops as soon as possible or the keep troops in Iraq until the situation is stable (47% each), and is nearly evenly divided on whether the U.S. should set a timetable for when troops will be withdrawn from Iraq (47% in favor of a timetable, 45% against).

As has been true since late in 2003, most Republicans favor maintaining U.S. troops in Iraq until the situation is stabilized, while most Democrats support bringing the troops home as soon as possible. But the ideological divisions within the Republican Party remain somewhat larger than those in the Democratic Party.

Nearly eight-in-ten conservative Republicans (79%) say the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq, but considerably fewer moderate and liberal Republicans agree (60%). Among liberal Democrats, 68% favor a troop withdrawal and nearly as many conservative and moderate Democrats take this position as well (64%). Independents are much closer to Democrats than to Republicans on both the question of what to do with the troops and whether to set a timetable for withdrawal.

Reactions to Candidates’ Stands on Iraq

Reflecting public sentiment over the war, voters are divided over whether differing approaches to Iraq would make them more likely to support or oppose a congressional candidate. Of three possible options tested, support for setting a timetable for the removal of U.S. forces has the greatest potential upside; 31% of voters say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported this position, while 23% say they would be more likely to vote against such a candidate.

Advocating a timetable for withdrawal is deeply divisive across partisan lines, however. Democratic voters say such a position would make them more likely to support a candidate by a 43% to 9% margin, but Republicans express the opposite view, with 43% more likely to vote against a “pro-timetable” candidate and just 16% more likely to vote for someone taking such a position. However, among independent voters, advocating a timetable for troop withdrawal is the only position of three tested that attracts more votes (35%) than it drives away (20%).

Candidates who favor keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for as long as it takes to stabilize the situation face a mixed response from voters. About a third of voters (32%) say this position would attract their vote, while 28% say this would make them more likely to oppose such a candidate. Again, partisanship is a powerful factor; most Republican voters (57%) say this position draws them toward a candidate, and 41% of Democrats say it would make them more likely to oppose such a candidate. Independents are divided: 26% would be more likely to vote for and 32% to vote against a candidate who backed staying in Iraq for as long as it takes.

The idea of an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq is the least appealing option of the three tested. Just 25% of voters say they would be more likely to support a candidate who favors an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, while 37% say they would be more likely to vote against a candidate who advocated this policy. The idea has broad appeal only among Democratic voters, and even here attracts the votes of only 40% – slightly fewer than say they would back a candidate who favored a timetable for withdrawal. Fifteen percent of Democrats say they would be more likely to oppose a candidate who backed an immediate withdrawal, as would 34% of independents and 63% of Republican voters.

Views of War Criticism

In addition to the debate between Republicans and Democrats about the war, there has also been a “debate about the debate.” Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sept. 10, Vice President Dick Cheney said that debate about the war raises doubts among America’s allies, and that suggestions that the U.S. withdraw “validates the strategy of the terrorists.” The poll finds that more people think criticism of the handling of the war in Iraq helps America’s enemies (36%) than believe it helps protect America (15%); but a 42% plurality sees criticism as neither helping the country’s enemies nor protecting the U.S.

More than half of Republicans (52%) believe that criticism of the handling of the war helps America’s enemies, while just 24% of Democrats agree. Independents fall midway between Democrats and Republicans (37%). But even among Republicans there is a divide along Republican lines – 59% of conservative Republicans see criticism of the war as a form of aid to America’s enemies compared with just 39% of moderate and liberal Republicans. Older Americans are more apt than younger people to believe that war critics are helping America’s enemies; 44% of those ages 65 and older feel this way, compared with just 29% among those under age 30.

Insurgency or Civil War?

A growing number of people perceive the Iraqi conflict as more of a civil war than an insurgency directed against the U.S. and its allies. In the current poll, 50% say it is mostly a civil war between competing factions, while 37% say it is mostly an insurgency. The belief that the situation is largely a civil war has increased by eight percentage points since March, when the public was more divided on the question (42% civil war, 45% insurgency). Unlike most attitudes and beliefs about the situation in Iraq, there are only modest partisan divides on this question; Democrats and Republicans are about equally likely to think the conflict is mostly a civil war. Opinions about what the U.S. should now do in Iraq are unrelated to perceptions of whether the conflict is mostly a civil war or mostly an insurgency.

Iraq and the War on Terrorism

There is no public consensus about the Iraq war’s impact on the effort to fight international terrorism. President Bush has repeatedly argued that Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism, while the president’s critics say that Iraq has been a distraction from the larger struggle. In the current poll, 45% of the public says that the war in Iraq has hurt the war on terrorism, while 41% say it has helped. The public has been mostly divided on this question since the middle of 2004, amid rising violence and the revelations about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.

Democratic and Republican opinions on this question are mirror images of one another: 69% of Republicans say the effort in Iraq has helped the war on terrorism, while just 21% say it has hurt; among Democrats, 66% say it has hurt and 22% say it’s helped. More independents say it has hurt (50%) than helped (36%).

War on Terror

As far as public views of the overall struggle against terrorism, just 39% of Americans say that the United States is winning the war on terror, down from 52% in September 2004. While the belief that the U.S. is prevailing in the struggle against terrorism has decreased among most major demographic and political groups, the decline has been especially sharp among moderate and liberal Republicans.

Just 50% of moderate and liberal Republicans say the U.S. prevailing in this effort, down from 78% two years ago. Conservative Republicans, by
contrast, continue to overwhelmingly believe the U.S. is winning the war on terrorism (84% then, 78% today.)

In September 2004, roughly half of independents (48%) said the U.S. was winning the war on terrorism; currently, only about a third (34%) expresses this view. Democrats also are far less likely to say that the U.S. is winning the war on terror. Two years ago, conservative and moderate Democrats were split on this issue, with nearly as many saying the U.S. was winning as losing (36% vs. 42%). Today, conservative and moderate Democrats, by greater than two-to-one, think the U.S. is losing (57%-24%). And the percentage of liberal Democrats who think the U.S. is winning the war on terror also has declined markedly over the past two years (from 31% to 12%).

Warrantless Wiretaps Still Favored

A majority of Americans (54%) continue to say it is generally right for the government to monitor the telephone and email communications of Americans suspected of having ties with terrorists without first obtaining court permission. Opinion on this issue has been stable since February, when an identical majority felt the government’s warrantless surveillance of suspected terrorists was generally acceptable.

Roughly twice as many whites as African Americans take a positive view of the government eavesdropping on suspected terrorists’ communications without court permission (58% vs. 28%). More people under age 30 than older Americans express reservations about the program.

Republicans overwhelmingly believe it is appropriate for the government to use such means to access calls and emails from Americans suspected of having ties with terrorists. A narrow majority of independents (52%) agree, while Democrats are somewhat divided. By about two-to-one (66%-32%), liberal Democrats feel it is generally wrong for the government to monitor the communications of suspected terrorists without court permission. Conservative and moderate Democrats are more evenly divided (44% generally right, 51% generally wrong).

Civil Liberties

Half of Americans feel it is not necessary for the average person to sacrifice some civil liberties in the effort to curb terrorism in the U.S., while 43% think it is necessary. Opinion about this issue has fluctuated since the 9/11 attacks.

In the months after the attacks, majorities felt it was necessary for average citizens to give up some liberties to combat terrorism. But by July 2004, the number expressing that opinion had fallen to 38%. Over the last two years, there has been an uptick in the percentage saying it is necessary for citizens to forego some liberties in the struggle against terrorism.

This view has increased modestly among most major demographic and political groups. There continue to be significant partisan differences in whether it is necessary for average Americans to sacrifice some liberties in the war on terror; a solid majority of Republicans (56%) say such sacrifices are necessary, compared with 41% of independents and 36% of Democrats.

Iran Negotiations Favored

An increasing number of Americans say they are hearing a lot about the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program; 41% say that now, compared with 32% in February. The public’s preference continues to be for the United Nations – not the United States – to take the lead in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. Fully 70% favor the U.N. taking a lead role, which is comparable to the number expressing that opinion in May (72%) and February (78%).

Americans also remain more concerned that we will wait too long to take action in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, rather than acting too quickly. A narrow majority (51%) says the greater concern is that we will wait too long before dealing with this issue, which is largely unchanged from earlier this year.

Notably, the public is amenable to the idea of direct negotiations with Iran over the issue of its nuclear program. A 54% majority favors such negotiations, while 32% are opposed. Among those who say they have heard a lot about Iran’s nuclear program, an even larger majority (64%) favors direct negotiations with Tehran.

Republicans are a bit more supportive of direct talks with Iran than are Democrats. Six-in-ten Republicans say they favor the U.S. negotiating directly with Iran over the issue of its nuclear program; somewhat fewer Democrats agree (51%).

September News Interest

The situation in Iraq once again was the month’s most closely followed story, though significantly fewer Americans say they followed news from Iraq very closely than did so in August (33% in September vs. 41% in August). This month, nearly as many people reported following news about the death of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin very closely as said they were tracking news about Iraq very closely.

Nearly three-in-ten Americans (27%) say they paid very close attention to reports on the upcoming fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. (This survey was in the field through Sept. 10, before the actual commemoration of the anniversary). News about Iran’s nuclear program continues to draw fairly modest public interest; 23% paid very close attention to news on this issue, little change from earlier this year.

Just 18% of Americans say they very closely followed President Bush’s announcement that 14 terrorist suspects, previously held in secret, will be tried in military tribunals. Political news also is not finding much of an audience; 16% say they are paying very close attention to news about candidates and election campaigns in their state and district. However, this is on par with campaign news interest at a comparable point in past midterm elections. In September 2002, for instance, 17% said they were following state and district campaign news very closely, and the figure was only slightly higher in September 1994 (19%).

Cite this publication: “Democrats Hold Solid Lead; Strong Anti-Incumbent, Anti-Bush Mood.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 14, 2006) http://www.people-press.org/2006/09/14/democrats-hold-solid-lead-strong-anti-incumbent-anti-bush-mood/, accessed on July 23, 2014.