February 12, 2010

Midterm Election Challenges for Both Parties

Section 2: The Midterm Elections

Voting intentions for this fall’s midterm elections continue to be closely divided. Currently, 45% of registered voters say that if the election were held today they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their district, or lean to the Democrat, while 42% say they would for the Republican candidate or lean to the GOP candidate. Opinions about the 2010 election have fluctuated little since the summer.

At this stage in the 2006 midterm campaign, Democrats held a 50% to 41% advantage among registered voters. In Pew Research’s final pre-election survey in November 2006, the Democrats led by eight points (48% to 40%).

Overwhelming majorities of Republican (91%) and Democratic voters (90%) continue to favor their party’s candidate for Congress, while independents remain divided. In the current survey, 40% say they would vote for the Republican candidate, 33% for the Democratic candidate, while a relatively large proportion (27%) offer no opinion.

With nine months to go before the midterm election, a relatively large share of voters (31%) say that national issues will make the biggest difference in how they will vote. Indeed, about as many voters say national issues will be the biggest factor in their vote as cite the candidate’s character and experience (30%) or local and state issues (27%).

National issues also were regarded as important in the 2006 midterm: In the final pre-election survey by Pew Research Center in November, 34% of voters said national issues would make the biggest difference, more than the percentage citing other factors. But national issues were not as significant a factor for voters in earlier elections: In final pre-election surveys from 1994 to 2002, fewer than a quarter of voters said national issues would make the biggest difference in their vote.

In the current survey, there are only slight partisan differences in views about which factors are most important. Comparable percentages of Republicans (33%), Democrats (29%) and independents (27%) cite national issues as most important in their vote.

Party Control Less of a Factor than in ‘06

While national issues are nearly as important a factor for voters now as in the closing days of the 2006 midterm, the question of which party controls Congress is less of a factor than it was two years ago. And substantially fewer voters see this fall’s election as a referendum on the president as did so two years ago.

About half of voters (48%) say that the issue of which party controls Congress will be a factor in their vote while nearly as many (45%) say it will not. Throughout 2006, majorities consistently said party control would be a factor in their vote; in the final pre-election survey, 61% said the question of party control of Congress would be a factor. The current measure is in line with midterm campaigns in 1998 and 2002. In each campaign, the proportion saying the issue of which party controls Congress never surpassed 50%.

Currently, 24% say they think of their vote for Congress this fall as a vote for Barack Obama while 20% say they consider their vote as a vote against Obama; 51% say Obama is not much of a factor in their vote. President Bush was a much bigger factor in 2006: In the final election poll that year, 35% said they viewed their ballot as a vote against the president while 21% said their vote was for the president; just 41% said Bush would not be a factor.

Bush was much more of a positive factor in the 2002 midterm. In November that year, nearly twice as many voters said they considered the vote as one for Bush than against him (by 29% to 16%). In the two midterms during Bill Clinton’s presidency, about as many said they viewed their vote as for the president as against him, with substantial majorities saying Clinton would not be much of a factor.

At this early stage in the 2010 campaign, 60% of Republican voters and 53% of Democratic voters say the issue of which party controls Congress will be factor in their vote. As is typically the case, far fewer independents (35%) see the question of which party controls Congress as a factor in their vote.

Notably, fewer Democrats say partisan control of Congress is a factor in their voting decision than did so at the end of the 2006 campaign (53% today vs. 73% in November 2006). But in many ways, that election was unusual, for the high proportions of voters saying that party control of Congress and the president were factors in their votes.

In the closing days of the 2006 campaign, fully 65% of Democrats said they thought of their vote as a vote against Bush; in February 2006, 55% of Democrats expressed this view. Today, just 42% of Republicans see their congressional vote as a vote against Obama. Indeed, about as many Republicans say Obama will not be much of a factor in their vote (46%) as see their vote as against Obama (42%).

Bush also was a negative factor for independent voters in 2006: 35% said they thought of their vote as being against Bush while just 11% said their vote was for Bush. Today, 19% of independents say their vote would be a vote against Obama, while 14% say it would be a vote for him.

In November 2002, by comparison, relatively small percentages of Democrats (32%) and independents (14%) said they considered their vote as a vote against Bush. And nearly six-in-ten Republicans (59%) thought of their vote as being for Bush; today, 49% of Democrats say their vote would be a vote for Obama.

Broad Anti-Incumbent Sentiment

Just 49% of voters say they would like to see their own congressional reelected this fall, while only about a third (32%) would like to see most members of Congress reelected. While these measures are largely unchanged from November, they are among the most negative attitudes toward congressional incumbents in two decades of Pew Research Center polling.

Anti-incumbent sentiment is currently at least as extensive today it was during 2006 and 1994 campaigns, when partisan control of Congress changed hands. At the end of the 2006 campaign, most voters (55%) wanted their own representative reelected while 37% wanted to see most members returned to Congress. Even late in the 1994 campaign, more voters wanted their own representative reelected than
do so today (58% then, 49% today) and about the same percentage wanted most representatives reelected as do so currently (31% then, 32% today).

As expected, anti-incumbent sentiment remains particularly intense among Republicans and independents. Fewer than half of Republican voters (45%) and independent voters (43%) say they want to see their own representative reelected, compared with 60% of Democrats. These numbers are largely unchanged from November 2009.