November 11, 2009

A Year Out, Widespread Anti-Incumbent Sentiment

Obama's Afghanistan Rating Declines

Overview

The mood of America is glum. Two-thirds of the public is dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. Fully nine-in-ten say that national economic conditions are only fair or poor, and nearly two-thirds describe their own finances that way – the most since the summer of 1992. An increasing proportion of Americans say that the war in Afghanistan is not going well, and a plurality continues to oppose the health care reform proposals in Congress.

Despite the public’s grim mood, overall opinion of Barack Obama has not soured – his job approval rating of 51% is largely unchanged since July, although his approval rating on Afghanistan has declined. But opinions about congressional incumbents are another matter.

About half (52%) of registered voters would like to see their own representative re-elected next year, while 34% say that most members of Congress should be re-elected. Both measures are among the most negative in two decades of Pew Research surveys. Other low points were during the 1994 and 2006 election cycles, when the party in power suffered large losses in midterm elections.

Support for congressional incumbents is particularly low among political independents. Only 42% of independent voters want to see their own representative re-elected and just 25% would like to see most members of Congress re-elected. Both measures are near all-time lows in Pew Research surveys.

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Oct. 28-Nov. 8 among 2,000 Americans reached on landlines and cell phones, finds that voting intentions for next year’s midterms are largely unchanged from August. Currently, 47% of registered voters say they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their district or lean Democratic, while 42% would vote for the Republican or lean to the GOP candidate. In August, 45% favored the Democrat in their district and 44% favored the Republican.

However, voters who plan to support Republicans next year are more enthusiastic than those who plan to vote for a Democrat. Fully 58% of those who plan to vote for a Republican next year say they are very enthusiastic about voting, compared with 42% of those who plan to vote for a Democrat. More than half (56%) of independent voters who support a Republican in their district are very enthusiastic about voting; by contrast, just 32% of independents who plan to vote for a Democrat express high levels of enthusiasm.

The survey finds that as Obama considers increasing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, a growing proportion of Americans express a negative view of the situation there. A majority (57%) now says the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is going not too well or not at all well, up from 45% in January. And while most continue to endorse the initial decision to use force in Afghanistan, that percentage has slipped from 64% at the beginning of the year to 56% in the current survey.

Yet the public remains deeply divided over what to do now – 40% say the number of troops in Afghanistan should be decreased, 32% say the number should be increased, and 19% favor keeping troop levels as they are now. These numbers are virtually unchanged from January. However, more Republicans now favor increasing the number of troops than did so in January (48% now, 38% then). The proportion of Democrats favoring a troop increase has fallen from 29% to 21% over the same period.

As in October, more people oppose than favor the health care proposals being discussed in Congress; 47% say they generally oppose the proposals being discussed in Congress, while 38% say they favor these proposals. About a third (34%) says they oppose the legislation very strongly while 24% favor it very strongly. The survey was mostly completed before the House approved health care reform legislation late in the evening of Nov. 7.

Obama’s Job Approval

Barack Obama’s overall job approval ratings have held relatively steady over the past four months: currently, 51% of Americans say they approve of his job performance; this figure has fluctuated between 51% and 55% since July. The share who disapprove – currently 36% – has ranged between 33% and 37% over the same time period. (For a detailed breakout of Obama’s overall job approval, see the tables at the end of this report.)

Obama’s overall job approval rating tends to exceed his performance ratings on specific issues. For example, while 51% approve of his performance overall, 44% approve of Obama’s handling of the nation’s foreign policy; 38% disapprove of his handling of foreign policy. Roughly four-in-ten (43%) approve of Obama’s job performance on health care policy; 47% disapprove. And just 42% approve of the way Obama is handling the economy, while a majority (52%) disapproves. His job rating for handling the federal budget deficit is even lower: 31% approve and 58% disapprove of his job performance on this issue.

Obama gets his highest issue-specific ratings for handling terrorist threats and energy policy. A narrow majority (52%) approves of the way Obama is handling terrorist threats; 34% disapprove. Obama gets comparable ratings on energy policy (50% approve, 34% disapprove).

As with Obama’s overall job approval figures, ratings of his performance on specific issues have remained largely unchanged since July. But Afghanistan is an exception to this pattern. Currently, only 36% of Americans say they approve of how Obama is handling the situation in Afghanistan, compared with 49% who disapprove. In July, more people approved (47%) than disapproved (33%) of his handling of the issue.

Obama’s ratings on Afghanistan have fallen sharply among men, Republicans and independents. Currently, a majority of men (53%) disapprove of Obama’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan while 35% approve. In July, most men (52%) gave Obama positive ratings on the issue. Opinion among women has shown far less change (37% approval currently, 43% in July).

Just 19% of Republicans now approve of Obama’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan, down from 40% in July. There also has been a 15-point slide in approval among independents (from 46% in July to 31% today). Democratic ratings have remained mostly positive – 54% approve of Obama’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan, down only slightly from 59% four months ago.

But Democrats who favor decreasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan give Obama lower ratings on this issue than do those who favor increasing the number of troops or maintaining current troop levels. Half of Democrats say they want to see the number of troops in Afghanistan decreased, and within this segment of the party, just 46% approve of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan policy. A 41% minority of Democrats want to see troop levels increased or kept as they are now; among this group, 61% approve of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan policy.

Anti-Incumbent Sentiment

Public frustration with Congress may have serious electoral implications for incumbents in the 2010 midterm elections. Only about a third (34%) of registered vote
rs say they think most members of Congress should be re-elected next year, which is on par with ratings during the 1994 and 2006 elections. Meanwhile, just 52% of voters say they want to see their own member re-elected, approaching levels in early October 2006 (50%) and 1994 (49%).

In November 1994, 68% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans favored the re-election of their own member of Congress, which is comparable to the current figures (64% of Democrats, 50% of Republicans). But today, just 42% of independents want to see their own representative re-elected, compared with 52% of independents on the eve of the 1994 midterm elections.

Partisan feelings about incumbents were the reverse in 2006, when the GOP held majorities in the House and Senate. In November 2006, 69% of Republicans, 52% of Democrats and 45% of independents wanted to see their own member of Congress re-elected.

No Spike in Support for Third Party

Despite record dissatisfaction with Congress and extremely low ratings for both the Democratic and Republican Parties, there is no shift in public demand for alternatives to the two parties. Just over half (52%) of Americans say the U.S. should have a third major political party in addition to the Democrats and Republicans, while four-in-ten (40%) disagree. This is little changed from last year, when 56% favored a third party and 38% opposed the idea.

Support for a third party continues to be widespread among independents. As was the case last year, 70% of independents say we should have a third major political party. Just 44% of both Republicans and Democrats agree. There is also a consistent difference between younger and older Americans. In the current poll, 63% of Americans under age 30 support the idea of a third political party, compared with just 37% of those ages 65 and older.

More Negative Views of Afghanistan

Currently, 36% say the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is going very or fairly well, while 57% say it is going not too well or not at all well. Opinion is much more negative now than it was in January, when 45% said things were going well in Afghanistan while an equal percentage disagreed.

Most Americans (56%) say that the initial decision to use force in Afghanistan was right, but that percentage also has declined since January (64%). Like the change in positive views of the military effort, the falloff in support for the initial decision to use force is evident across most political and demographic groups.

Currently, 49% of conservative and moderate Democrats and just 44% of liberal Democrats support the initial decision to use force. Majorities of each group favored this decision in January. Support for the decision to go to war also has fallen among independents, from 65% in January to 55% in the current survey.

While support for the initial decision to go to war also has declined among Republicans, they remain more likely than Democrats to endorse this decision. Currently, 76% of conservative Republicans and 62% of moderate and liberal Republicans say the United States made the right decision in using force in Afghanistan, down nine points and 13 points, respectively, since January.

Still Divided over Troop Levels

The public continues to be divided over whether the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be increased (32%), decreased (40%) or kept the same (19%). The overall balance of opinion is largely unchanged from January, but Republicans have become more supportive of a troop increase while support among Democrats has fallen.

Currently, nearly half of Republicans (48%) say the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be increased, up 10 points from January. Only about one-in-five Democrats (21%) now favor a troop increase, down from 29% in January. A plurality of Democrats (50%) continue to favor a reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Independents remain split over U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. However, somewhat more independents now say the number of forces there should be decreased (42%) rather than increased (32%); in January, as many favored decreasing troop levels as increasing them (37% each).

Health Care Opposition Remains Strong

While support for the health care bills before Congress ticked up slightly from last month, more Americans continue to oppose than support the overall package by a 47% to 38% margin. And strong opposition continues to outweigh strong support by a 34% to 24% margin.

Currently, 38% support the health care bills in Congress, up slightly from 34% last month. The shift reflects a rebound in support for health care legislation among independents, particularly independents who lean toward the Democratic Party.

Overall, 33% of independents favor the health care legislation being discussed in Congress, up from 26% in October. This is driven by a 16-point rebound in support (from 42% to 58%) among the subset of independents who say they lean Democratic. But overall, just over half of independents (51%) remain opposed to health care overhaul.

There has also been a small rebound in support for health care legislation among people with lower incomes. Among those with family incomes of less than $30,000 a year, 44% back the bills before Congress, up from 35% last month.

The intensity of opposition to health care reform may have electoral implications. Overall, 56% of voters who oppose the health legislation in Congress say they are very enthusiastic about voting in the 2010 midterm elections, compared with 43% of voters who support the bills. Among voters who strongly oppose the legislation, 64% say they are very enthusiastic about casting their ballot in 2010; only about half (49%) of those who strongly favor the health care legislation are very enthusiastic about voting.

Fewer See Economy Getting Better

Ratings of the state of the nation’s economy remain dismal – fully 91% of Americans rate the nation’s economy as in “only fair” or “poor” shape. Within these gloomy ratings is some overall improvement from earlier in the year. Half of Americans say the economy is in “poor” shape today, down from a high of 71% in February. At the same time, however, the proportion saying they expect things to get better a year from now has slipped from 45% last month to 39% today.

The share of Americans who rate their own personal financial situation positively has fallen to a 17-year low. Just 35% of Americans say they are in excellent or good shape financially, down slightly from 38% in October. The last time personal financial ratings fell to this level was in August of 1992.

Americans remain more optimistic about their personal financial situation than about the nation’s economy as a whole. Most (56%) say they think their personal finances will improve over the coming year. Just 39% see the nation’s economy improving over the same time period.

Cite this publication: “A Year Out, Widespread Anti-Incumbent Sentiment.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (November 11, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/11/11/a-year-out-widespread-anti-incumbent-sentiment/, accessed on July 23, 2014.