From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, and Jennifer Colby.
Nineteen days before the midterm elections, the Republican party is approaching -- and in some cases setting -- low watermarks in the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, driven mainly by the public's increasingly negative views of the war in Iraq and of the performance of the GOP-run Congress in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal. Voters rate North Korea's nuclear missile test as an important recent event in deciding how they will vote, but opinions remain volatile and at this point, they give Republicans only a slight edge over Democrats on it.
By a margin of 15 points, voters prefer a Democratic- to a Republican-controlled Congress, 52% to 37%. That's the widest margin ever recorded for either party in the survey. It also marks a six-point increase in Democrats' favor since our last poll two weeks prior, when the margin between the two parties was nine points. The new poll was conducted from October 13-16 of 1,006 registered voters and has a margin of error of +/-3.1%.
Recent NBC/WSJ polls (pdf files)
Congress' job approval rating in the survey is 16%, one point away from its all-time low of 15% from April 1992. In October 1994, when the last wave election swept the Democratic majority party from power, Congress' job approval was 24%. The poll also shows the Republican party with one of its lowest positive ratings and its highest negative rating ever recorded: 32% positive, 49% negative. Rated 37% positively and 35% negatively, the Democratic party has come to be viewed as a "marginally acceptable alternative," per our NBC/Journal pollsters.
Two issues are causing this downshift for the GOP, which comes despite some improvement in feelings about the economy. While Bush's overall job approval rating has dropped a point over the past two weeks, from 39% to 38%, his job approval rating on handling the economy has increased three points. "Americans sometimes don't pause to give you credit," says NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R). "They move on to what they're concerned about." Those concerns, per the survey, are Iraq and Congress' performance. "Those issues have overwhelmed what they think in terms of the economy," McInturff says.
Iraq continues to be the top issue for voters, and one on which they prefer Democrats over Republicans by 39% to 31%. The survey was taken before the one-day US death toll there hit a 10-month high earlier this week. Even so, President Bush's job approval rating on handling the war has dropped five points in one month, and the level of optimism about the way things are going there has plummeted 24 points since we last measured it in June. When voters were asked an open-ended question about what message they'd like to send to Congress with their vote, the "number one response is dissatisfaction with the way things are going in Iraq," says McInturff.
The Foley scandal, co-pollster Peter Hart (D) says, has been "the coagulate of this election" in that it served to harden all of voters' various uncertainties about the Republican leadership in Congress. The scandal hit two different buttons, Hart says: "Children are our central nervous system," and also, "the leadership were more interested in saving their own skins, and they acted like politicians instead of acting like fathers." Although the poll shows that the scandal has not seriously undercut the GOP's traditional advantage over Democrats when it comes to promoting strong moral values, 55% of those polled who've heard about the scandal are dissatisfied with the way GOP leaders handled it. The upshot, per Hart, is that voters now feel as though they have permission to vote against the party.
Also rather problematic for Republicans: Foley is recognized by a remarkable 83% of the electorate; 69% view him negatively. House Majority Leader John Boehner and former House Clerk Jeff Trandahl are scheduled to testify before the Ethics Committee today about their knowledge of Foley's inappropriate behavior toward pages.
In a pair of rare public appearances, President Bush stands with two of his party's more controversial incumbents on the ballot; most Bush events with candidates are still closed to the press. But check out who he's appearing with. Rep. Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania has admitted to having an adulterous affair and is fending off charges that he abused the woman with whom he had the affair. And Sen. George Allen's problems, including some with racial undertones, have been well-documented on YouTube and the front page of the Washington Post. The Democratic House campaign committee points out that Bush has proclaimed this week to be "National Character Counts Week."