November 16, 2006

Public Cheers Democratic Victory

Expectations As High As for GOP in 1994

Summary of Findings

The Democrats’ big win on Nov. 7 has gotten a highly favorable response from the public. In fact, initial reactions to the Democratic victory are as positive as they were to the GOP’s electoral sweep of Congress a dozen years ago. Six-in-ten Americans say they are happy that the Democratic Party won control of Congress; in December 1994, roughly the same percentage (57%) expressed a positive opinion of the GOP’s takeover.

Half of Americans approve of the Democrats’ plans and policies for the future, which also is comparable to approval of the GOP’s proposed agenda in 1994. However, there is one important area where the parallels to 1994 do not hold: By 51%-29%, more Americans want Democratic leaders ­ rather than President Bush ­ to take the lead in solving the nation’s problems. Twelve years ago, the public was divided over whether GOP congressional leaders (43%), or President Clinton (39%), should take the lead in addressing national problems.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press ­ conducted Nov. 9-12 among 1,479 Americans ­ finds that Americans are optimistic that Democrats will actually get their proposals enacted. Roughly six-in-ten (59%) say Democratic leaders will be successful in getting their programs passed into law; again, this is on par with the confidence that Americans voiced about GOP legislative prospects in December 1994.

However, in the wake of a bitter midterm campaign, the public is dubious that the election will lead to increased bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. Just 29% think that relations between Republicans and Democrats will get better in the year ahead; 46% expect relations to remain the same; and 20% predict relations will get worse.

In this regard, Democrats are cool to the idea of their leaders cooperating with President Bush. About half of Democrats (51%) say party leaders should “stand up” to Bush on important issues, even if that means less gets done in Washington; 42% believe Democratic leaders should try to work with Bush, even if it means disappointing some Democratic supporters. By contrast, most Republicans (61%) want their party’s leaders to try to work with Democratic leaders, while 30% believe GOP leaders should stand up to the Democrats.

Bush’s own job approval ratings have hit a new low in the aftermath of the elections. Just 32% of Americans approve of Bush’s job performance compared with 58% who disapprove. Bush’s job rating stands at just 24% among political independents, who proved crucial to the Democrats’ victory on Nov. 7. By 57%-39%, independent voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates, according to national exit polls. Two years ago, independent voters were more divided (50% Democrat/46% Republican). See “Centrists Deliver for Democrats,” November 8, 2006).

The broad opposition to President Bush among independents is reflected in their strong preference that Democratic leaders, rather than the president, take the lead in solving the nation’s problems. By more than two-to-one (53%-25%), independents believe that Democratic leaders should take the lead on issues. In the aftermath of the 1994 elections, independents ­ like the public generally ­ were divided over whether President Clinton or Republican leaders should have a leading role in dealing with issues.

The survey finds that public perceptions of the situation of Iraq have gone from bad to worse. Overall, 64% feel that the U.S. military effort in Iraq is not going well, up from 59% last month and the highest percentage since the war began. In terms of specific evaluations of the situation, increasing numbers say the U.S. is losing ground in training Iraqi security forces (up 11 points since August), reducing civilian casualties (nine points), and preventing terrorists from establishing a base in Iraq (nine points).

Obama Moves Up

Though some of this year’s congressional elections are not yet decided, attention is already beginning to shift to the 2008 presidential race. Sen. Barack Obama has emerged as the leading rival to Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination.

Among registered Democrats, Sen. Clinton continues to lead by a wide margin ­ 39% of party voters back her, compared with 23% for Obama. But the margin narrows among independent voters; 27% say they would like to see Clinton win the Democratic nomination, while 21% favor Obama.

Among the Republican contenders, Sen. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani both continue to attract broad support. Among registered Republicans, the two run neck-and-neck (27% for Giuliani, 26% for McCain), and both receive the support of roughly three-in-ten independents as well.

The lists of potential presidential nominees for both parties mostly consist of veteran politicians, but the public wants more people from different walks of life to compete for high political office. About six-in-ten Americans (57%) say they would like to see more non-politicians run for high office, compared with 33% who think it is important to have experienced politicians running for office. Comparable percentages of independents (59%), Democrats (59%) and Republicans (56%) say it would be good for political outsiders to run for high office.

Pelosi’s Stature Growing

While most Americans still are unable to name a person who stands out in their minds as the leader of the Democratic Party these days, the proportion naming Rep. Nancy Pelosi has risen sharply following the 2006 midterm elections. Currently, 10% of Americans name Rep. Pelosi as the party’s leader, up from just 1% in April. Only Hillary Clinton is cited more frequently, by 12% of respondents.

There is little party divide over perceptions of the Democratic leadership ­ Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are mentioned most frequently by Republicans, Democrats and independents. But within the Democratic Party, liberals and conservatives take a somewhat different view. Among liberal Democrats, 14% cite Howard Dean as the party’s leader, on par with the percentage who cite Clinton (14%) and Pelosi (13%). But just 2% of moderate and conservative Democrats name Dean, while 14% name Clinton and 9% name Pelosi. No other leader stands out in the minds of moderate and conservative Democrats; most are unable to name anyone as the party’s leader these days.

Partisans Rate their Parties

Throughout the Bush presidency, Republicans nationwide have expressed far more satisfaction than Democrats with their party’s performance in standing up for its traditional positions. But over the past two years, Republicans have become increasingly frustrated with their party. As a result, for the first time in more than six years, as many Democrats as Republicans give their party good marks for standing up for its traditional positions (43% of Democrats/42% of Republicans).

More than half of Democrats (52%) still say the party has done only a fair (45%) or poor (7%) job in advocating such traditional Democratic positions as protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and needy, and representing working people. But there is greater dissatisfaction among Republicans: 41% say the party has done only a fair job, and 15% a poor job, of standing up for traditional GOP positions like reducing the
size of government, cutting taxes, and promoting conservative social values.

The last time a majority of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic gave their party positive marks for standing up for traditional party positions was during the final months of the Clinton administration (63% in September 2000). During the past six years fewer than half of Democrats and Democratic leaners felt the party was performing well in this regard, reaching an all-time low of 33% in March 2005. Democratic ratings have recovered somewhat from that low point ­ today 43% say the party is performing well on its traditional agenda, up from just 34% this June.

Conservative Democrats are much more positive about how well the party has performed in advocating its traditional positions than are moderate and liberal Democrats. Nearly six-in-ten conservative Democrats (58%) say the party has done an excellent or good job in this regard, compared with 40% of moderate Democrats and 37% of liberal Democrats.

Among Republicans, conservatives are more satisfied with the party’s stand on key principles than are moderates in the party. Half of conservative Republicans (50%) feel the party is doing an excellent or good job standing up for traditional party positions, compared with 28% of moderates.

The growth in Republican frustration with the party has also been most notable among older Republicans. Today, just 34% of Republicans age 50 and over say the party is performing well on its core positions, down from 48% as recently as this April. Among Democrats, there is no age divide in ratings of the party’s performance in this area.

Iraq Top Election Issue

The war in Iraq dominated the news this fall and was the central issue in the campaigns of many Democratic candidates for Congress. Pre-election polling consistently found more voters picking Iraq as the top issue in the election. However, results from the national exit polls suggested that the issue of corruption and scandals in government was more important to voters than the war in Iraq.

The national exit poll, conducted by the National Election Pool, asked voters to indicate how important each of six issues were to their vote, using a scale that ranged from “extremely important” to “not at all important.” Government corruption was mentioned by more voters as extremely important (42%) than terrorism or the economy (40%), “values issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion” (36%), or the war in Iraq (36%). When the “extremely” and “very” important categories are combined, Iraq still fell below several other issues in importance.

The exit poll showed that comparable numbers of voters rated several issues as extremely important. By contrast, when the Pew survey presented one group of voters with the same list of issues that appeared on the exit poll ­ and then asked “which one issue mattered most to you in deciding how you voted in the congressional election” ­ certain issues emerged as ranking much higher than others.

As was the case in pre-election surveys, Iraq was mentioned most often (by 30% as a first choice, and 53% as first or second choice), with the economy following at 20% (and 37% as a first or second choice). Values issues were close behind at 16% (and 27% as a first or second choice). Corruption was mentioned by only 10% as the top issue, though it did climb to 23% among first and second choices combined.

Another group of voters was asked to state in their own words what one issue mattered most in their vote; they were not presented with a list of issues. In this format responses were much more scattered, though again, Iraq topped this list with 17%. No other single issue was mentioned by more than 7% (the economy). Terrorism, which appeared more important than Iraq to voters in the exit poll questions, was mentioned as the top issue by only 1% of respondents.

Responses to the open-ended version of this question were much more dispersed than they were in 2004, when Pew also conducted a post-election experiment on the importance of issues in the vote. In the 2004 survey, 60% of respondents mentioned one of the top four issues that had been on the exit poll list that year (Iraq, moral values, the economy and jobs, and terrorism). This year, the top four issues in the open-ended format accounted for only 30% of the total. This difference may reflect the difference between a presidential election in which opinion is crystallized around two candidates and their positions on issues, and the widely scattered nature of the political campaigns waged in a legislative election.

Partisans Far Apart in Issue Priorities

As is often the case, Democratic and Republican voters have very different views of which issues were most important. Iraq was chosen as the top issue by four-in-ten of those who voted for Democratic candidates (and by 66% as first or second choice). In contrast, just 16% of Republican voters picked Iraq (37% as a first or second choice). The economy was also more frequently mentioned as a top issue by Democratic voters (25%) than by Republicans (17%). Values issues were the top choice of Republican voters (30%), compared with just 8% of Democrats. Corruption and scandals registered with Democrats (14% picked it first), but not with Republican voters (4%). Terrorism (16%) and illegal immigration (11%) were both more important to Republican voters than to Democrats (2% each).

There also are some notable demographic differences in issue priorities. Catholics were far more likely than Protestants to cite the economy as the top issue (29% for Catholics, 18% for Protestants). White evangelical Protestants were far more likely than other groups to mention values issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion (39% vs. 16% for all voters), a pattern similar to that seen in 2004. Illegal immigration was the second ranked issue among older men; 18% mentioned it as the top issue, compared with just 7% of all voters. Just 2% of voters in the West mentioned illegal immigration as the top issue. The economy was the most frequently mentioned issue in the Midwest, with 30% citing it first (compared with 26% citing Iraq).

Democrats Motivated by Party Control

Party control of Congress mattered more to those who voted for Democratic candidates in their districts than it did to voters who supported Republican candidates. A majority of Republican voters (57%) say their vote for Congress was mostly a vote for the individual candidate in their district; just 29% say they were voting to help the Republican Party keep control of Congress. Among those who say they voted for a Democrat in their district, party control of Congress was as important a factor as evaluations of the individual candidates running for office.

In addition, about one-in-five Democratic voters (18%) say their vote was meant to express opposition to Bush, compared with 10% of Republican voters who said their vote was in support of Bush. For more than half of Democratic voters (56%), national concerns ­ either partisan control of Congress or opposition to Bush ­ were factors in their votes. Just 39% of Republican voters cite such factors as influential in their votes.

Judging the Campaign

A strong majority of voters (72%) say they learned enough to make an informed choice between the candidates, compared with 24% who say they did not learn enough from the campaign. In this regard, the 2006 election received
higher marks than previous midterm election campaigns. In December 1994, only 48% of registered voters said they had learned enough from the campaign, while half said they had not. Though less happy with the outcome of the election this year, Republicans were more likely than Democrats or independents to say they learned enough to make an informed choice (77% vs. 71% and 68%, respectively).

On balance voters say they saw less discussion of issues in this campaign than in past elections: 49% say there was less discussion of the issues, 40% say there was more. Most Democrats (52%) believe there was more discussion of issues this year compared with past campaigns, but only about a third of Republicans and independents agree (32% each).

More Mudslinging This Year

Voters overwhelmingly believe this was a more negative campaign than usual. Nearly seven-in-ten voters (69%) say there was more mudslinging or negative campaigning this year than in past elections. Only 15% say there was less mudslinging. In November 2002, 51% of registered voters said that year’s campaign had been more negative than past campaigns.

Republican voters were somewhat more critical of the campaign process this year than were Democrats or independents. Three-quarters of GOP voters say there was more negative campaigning this year than in the past. This compares with 67% of Democratic voters and 68% of independent voters.

Grading the Campaign

In addition to rating the campaign overall, voters were asked to grade certain key players in the campaign on their performance. Nearly seven-in-ten voters who gave an answer (68%) gave the voters a grade of A or B. This was significantly higher than the grades voters gave themselves after the 1998 midterm elections (50% A or B). This year’s grades are similar to those for the 2004 presidential election, when 64% of voters gave themselves an A or B. Not surprisingly, Democrats are more pleased than Republicans with the voters’ overall performance: 70% of Democrats vs. 50% of Republicans give the voters a grade of A or B.

The parties receive lower grades than the voters overall. Less than half of voters, give the Democratic Party an A or B for its performance (48%). These grades are similar to the ones the Democrats received in 1998, when they made slight gains in the House of Representatives but did not take control, and higher than the party’s 2004 grades. Only 30% gave the Republican Party high marks for its performance this year, placing the GOP not only behind the Democrats but behind the press and the campaign consultants as well. These grades are much lower than the ones the GOP received after the 2004 election (51% A or B) and similar to those it received in 1998.

There is a large partisan gap on this issue as well. Democrats give their own party high marks for its performance. Seven-in-ten Democrats say their party deserves an A or B. Only 44% of Republicans say the same about the GOP’s conduct in this election cycle. These ratings are clearly driven by the election outcome, as the Republicans gave themselves much higher marks after their 2004 victory than did Democrats in the wake of John Kerry’s loss.

Among the outside observers of the campaign process, the pollsters out-polled the press and the campaign consultants in the eyes of the public. The pollsters received a grade of A or B from 58% of those who could rate them. These ratings are up significantly from 1998 and 2004, when pollsters got high marks from less than half of the public. The press received high ratings from 42% of those who could evaluate them. This is up moderately from the low ratings the press received for its performance in 2004. Campaign consultants are the least known to the public. More than one-in-four voters could not give consultants a rating. Among those who did rate the consultants, 40% gave them a grade of A or B.

Voting Goes Fairly Well

Eight-in-ten voters actually cast their votes on Election Day this year; the remaining 20% voted by absentee ballot or some other method. Older voters were more likely than younger ones to use an alternative voting method ­ 30% of voters ages 65 and older say they voted before Election Day, compared with 17% of young and middle-aged voters. Voting regulations vary widely across different regions of the country. In the West, where several states allow for early voting and voting-by-mail, 40% of the voters say they voted before Election Day. In the South, 22% voted prior to Election Day. Fewer voters in the Midwest (12%) and hardly any in the Northeast (5%) voted before the election.

Election Day voters encountered relatively few problems. Fewer than three-in-ten (28%) say they waited in line at their polling place. This is down significantly from the 2004 presidential election when 42% reported waiting in line. Among those who did wait in line, the vast majority waited less than 30 minutes.

Roughly half of voters (49%) report that they voted on a computerized voting machine at their polling place, while 41% voted on a paper ballot. Again there are major differences by region. Touch-screen voting is much more prevalent in the Northeast and South than it is in the Midwest and West.

Blacks More Skeptical of Accurate Vote Count

For the most part, voters are confident that their own vote was counted in the recent election. However, they remain skeptical about the accuracy of the vote count nationwide. Seven-in-ten voters say they are very confident that their vote was accurately counted, while only 39% of voters are very confident that the votes across the country were counted correctly. This year’s voters express even less confidence in the system than voters did after the 2004 presidential election. At that time, 48% of voters said they were very confident that votes nationally were counted accurately.

Whites have more confidence than blacks in the voting system. More than seven-in-ten whites (72%) are very confident their own vote was counted accurately, compared with only 54% of blacks. In addition, blacks are twice as likely as whites to say they have little or no confidence that votes were tallied correctly nationwide (18% of blacks vs. 9% of whites). College graduates express more confidence in the accuracy of the system than do those without a college degree. This is true with regard to both individual votes and the national vote.

The way in which people voted has little impact on confidence in the system. Voters who cast their vote by paper ballot or on a computer screen have similar views about the accuracy of the vote count. Similarly, absentee or early voters express about the same degree of confidence that their votes were counted accurately as do voters who cast ballots on Election Day.

Iraq: From Bad to Worse

The number of Americans who believe the war in Iraq is going poorly is now at a record high ­ 64% say U.S. military efforts are not going too well or not well at all. Only about one-in-three (32%) say these efforts are going very or fairly well. As recently as September, the public was almost evenly split between those who felt the war was going well and those who saw it going poorly.

Moreover, public perceptions of progress on specific goals of the Iraq mission have also declined sharply. Since the beginning of the year, the number who say we are making progress in establishing a democracy in Iraq has fallen by 19 points, from 62% to 43%. Comparable declines are evident in pe
rceptions of whether we are making progress in training Iraqi security forces (down 17 points), and in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure (16 points).

Less than half of the public thinks the U.S. is making progress on all of the seven goals included on the survey. Only about a third of Americans (34%) think we are making headway toward defeating the insurgents, while even fewer believe progress is being made on preventing a civil war (22%) and reducing Iraqi civilian casualties (20%).

Despite these more negative views about progress in Iraq, there has been no significant increase in the number of Americans calling for a troop withdrawal of U.S. forces. The public remains divided over whether the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible (48%) or keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized (46%).

This pattern ­ increasingly negative evaluations of the war, but no surge in support for bringing the troops home ­ is evident across partisan groups. Since September, Republicans, Democrats, and independents have all become significantly more likely to say the military effort in Iraq is not going well. Nonetheless,

slightly fewer Republicans favor a troop withdrawal than two months ago. Solid, but stable, majorities of Democrats and independents favor bringing U.S. troops home as soon as possible.

As in previous Pew polls, most of those who support bringing troops home as soon as possible say the withdrawal should not be immediate, but rather should take place gradually over the next year or two. Even among Democrats, who overwhelmingly believe troops should be removed as soon as possible, just 21% say the withdrawal should be immediate.

Overall, there are signs that what might be considered the status quo position ­ that the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq and that there are currently enough troops there to do the job ­ is losing support. Just 20% support this position, down from 27% in April. At the same time, the number of people who believe we should send more troops has risen slightly, from 13% to 17%.

However, among Republicans the shift has been more pronounced: In April, 45% of Republicans felt we had enough troops in Iraq to do the job, while only 15% believed more troops were needed. Now Republicans are more evenly divided on this question, with 33% saying we have a sufficient number of troops and 27% calling for additional forces.

Although relatively few Americans favor an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, most are concerned that the U.S. might keep its troops there too long. When asked which concerns them more, that the U.S. will wait too long to withdraw troops from Iraq or that we will leave Iraq before a stable democracy is in place, a majority (55%) say their chief concern is that the U.S. will wait too long to withdraw. One-in-three Americans are more concerned about leaving before the creation of a stable democracy. Since Pew first asked this question in 2004, the public has consistently been more concerned about keeping troops there too long, rather than pulling the military out before a stable, democratic Iraq is established.

More Oppose Decision to Go to War

The number of Americans who believe the decision to use military force against Iraq was a mistake has risen to the highest level since the war began. Roughly half of the public (51%) now believes the U.S. made the wrong decision in using military force against Iraq, while 41% say it was the right decision.

Since September, the belief that the war was the wrong decision has grown among Democrats and independents. The percentage of Democrats who say the use of military force was the wrong decision has increased by seven points; among independents the change has been more dramatic (12 points). But among Republicans, just 16% feel the war was the wrong decision, little changed from two months ago (18%).

Pessimism about the Iraq war’s impact on the war on terrorism is also at an all-time high. Just under half of the public (48%) now believes the Iraq war has hurt efforts to combat terrorism, while 37% think it has helped the war on terrorism. There also are significant partisan divisions on this issue: While 68% of Democrats and 51% of independents say the Iraq war has damaged the war on terrorism, just 20% of Republicans share this view.

Still Some Hope for Success

A narrow majority of Americans (53%) still say that the U.S. will definitely succeed (12%) or probably succeed (41%) in achieving its goals in Iraq. That is down somewhat from September (57%), but little changed when compared with August (54%).

There is somewhat less optimism that the U.S. can succeed in establishing a stable democracy in Iraq. Fewer than half of Americans (46%) see the U.S. definitely or probably succeeding in achieving this goal while about as many (44%) think that the U.S. will probably or definitely fail.

Views about the current direction of the war are correlated with views about the likelihood of success: Those who say military efforts are going well are more likely to say the U.S. will ultimately succeed in its goals. However, even among those who feel the war is currently going poorly, 37% believe the U.S. will achieve its goals in Iraq.

Neither Party Has a Clear Vision for Iraq

Despite the Democrats’ electoral triumph, only about one-in-five Americans (22%) believe Democratic leaders have a clear plan for dealing with the situation in Iraq. That is about the same number who believe that President Bush has a clear plan for Iraq (19%).

The percentage saying Bush has a clear plan for addressing the situation in Iraq has declined over the past 14 months; in September 2005, 30% felt the president had a clear strategy for the war.

Notably, political partisans are highly skeptical of the clarity of their own party’s approach to Iraq. Just a third of Democrats say that Democratic leaders have a clear plan for dealing with Iraq; somewhat more Republicans, though still less than a majority (43%), say President Bush has a clear strategy for success.

News Interest: Elections, Iraq

Nearly half of Americans (46%) say they paid very close attention to the outcome of the Nov. 7 elections. That is slightly higher than public interest in midterm elections in 1998 (42%) and 1994 (41%).

The election results drew very strong interest from Democrats, especially liberal Democrats. Fully seven-in-ten liberal Democrats followed the election outcome very closely, compared with 55% of conservative and moderate Democrats, and about half of conservative and moderate/liberal Republicans. Only about a third of independents (34%) said they paid very close attention to the election results.

The current survey finds partisan and ideological differences in attentiveness to other news stories. More than half of liberal Democrats (53%) said they followed news about the situation in Iraq, compared with 43% of conservative Republicans. In addition, 45% of liberal Democrats paid very close attention to news of Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, more than in any other partisan group.

There was relatively little public interest in reports about a Colorado minister who stepped down amid reports of a homosexual affair. But this story did attract more interest among liberal Democrats (22%) than any other political groups. Just 12% of conservative Republicans ­ and an identical percentage of white evangelical Protestants ­ tracked this story very closely.

Campaign News Sources

Roughly seven-in-ten voters (69%) say they got most of their campaign news from television, and more voters relied on cable news (30%) than either network news (24%) or local news (22%).

More than four-in-ten voters (44%) say they got most of their news from newspapers, while 19% cited the internet as their top campaign news source and 18% said radio.

Among individual TV news outlets, roughly the same numbers of voters say they get most of their news from Fox News Channel as from CNN (16% vs. 13%). About one-in-ten relied mostly on NBC News (11%), ABC News (11%), and CBS News (9%) for coverage of the campaign.

The partisan differences in the audiences for cable news sources, which were evident in Pew’s news consumption surveys in 2004 and 2006, are particularly apparent when it comes to voters’ main source for election news. Roughly three-in-ten Republicans (31%) say they get most of their news on the election from Fox News, compared with 13% of independents and just 8% of Democrats. By contrast, many more Democrats than Republicans get most of their campaign news from CNN (14% of Democrats vs. 7% of Republicans).

The internet is an important source of campaign news for men, particularly men under age 50, and well-educated people. More than a third of men under age 50 (35%) say they got most of their campaign news from the internet; about the same percentage say they relied mostly on newspapers (34%). About three-in-ten college graduates say they got most of their campaign news from the internet compared with just 12% of those with no more than a high school education.

Overall, 32% of voters who got most of their campaign news on the internet say they went to television news websites such as MSNBC.com or CNN.com. Nearly as many (28%) say they went to the news pages of such sites as Google or Yahoo. And 20% of voters who relied mostly on the internet for campaign news went to newspaper websites, such as the New York Times and Washington Post.