Only 25% in Poll Approve of the Congress
With barely seven weeks until the midterm elections, Americans have an overwhelmingly negative view of the Republican-controlled Congress, with substantial majorities saying that they disapprove of the job it is doing and that its members do not deserve re-election, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
The disdain for Congress is as intense as it has been since 1994, when Republicans captured 52 seats to end 40 years of Democratic control of the House and retook the Senate as well. It underlines the challenge the Republican Party faces in trying to hold on to power in the face of a surge in anti-incumbent sentiment.
By broad margins, respondents said that members of Congress were too tied to special interests and that they did not understand the needs and problems of average Americans. Two-thirds said Congress had accomplished less than it typically did in a two-year session; most said they could not name a single major piece of legislation that cleared this Congress. Just 25 percent said they approved of the way Congress was doing its job.
But for all the clear dissatisfaction with the 109th Congress, 39 percent of respondents said their own representative deserved re-election, compared with 48 percent who said it was time for someone new.
What is more, it seems highly unlikely Democrats will experience a sweep similar to the one Republicans experienced in 1994. Most analysts judge only about 40 House seats to be in play at the moment, compared with over 100 seats in play at this point 12 years ago, in large part because redistricting has created more safe seats for both parties.
The poll also found that President Bush had not improved his own or his party’s standing through his intense campaign of speeches and events surrounding the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The speeches were at the heart of a Republican strategy to thrust national security to the forefront in the fall elections.
Mr. Bush’s job approval rating was 37 percent in the poll, virtually unchanged from the last Times/CBS News poll, in August. On the issue that has been a bulwark for Mr. Bush, 54 percent said they approved of the way he was managing the effort to combat terrorists, again unchanged from last month, though up from this spring.
Republicans continued to hold a slight edge over Democrats on which party was better at dealing with terrorism, though that edge did not grow since last month despite Mr. Bush’s flurry of speeches on national security, including one from the Oval Office on the night of Sept. 11.
But the Times/CBS News poll found a slight increase in the percentage of Americans who said they approved of the way Mr. Bush had handled the war in Iraq, to 36 percent from 30 percent. The results also suggest that after bottoming out this spring, Mr. Bush’s approval ratings on the economy and foreign policy have returned to their levels of about a year ago, both at 37 percent. The number of people who called terrorism the most important issue facing the country doubled to 14 percent, from 7 percent in July; 22 percent named the war in Iraq as their top concern, little changed from July.
Across the board, the poll found marked disenchantment with Congress, highlighting the opportunity Democrats see to make the argument for a change in leadership and to make the election a national referendum on the performance of a Republican-controlled Congress and Mr. Bush’s tenure.
In one striking finding, 77 percent of respondents — including 65 percent of Republicans — said most members of Congress had not done a good enough job to deserve re-election and that it was time to give a new people a chance. That is the highest number of voters saying it is “time for new people” since the fall of 1994.
“You get some people in there, and they’re in there forever,” said Jan Weaver, of Aberdeen, S.D., who described herself as a Republican voter, in a follow-up interview. “They’re so out of touch with reality.”
In the poll, 50 percent said they would support a Democrat in the fall Congressional elections, compared with 35 percent who said they would support a Republican. But the poll found that Democrats continued to struggle to offer a strong case for turning government control over to them; only 38 percent said the Democrats had a clear plan for how they would run the country, compared with 45 percent who said the Republicans had offered a clear plan.
Overall discontent with Congress or Washington does not necessarily signify how people will vote when they see the familiar name of their member of Congress on the ballot, however. Democrats face substantial institutional obstacles in trying to repeat what Republicans accomplished in 1994, including a Republican financial advantage and the fact that far fewer seats are in play.
Thus, while 61 percent of respondents said they disapproved of the way Congress was handling its job, just 29 percent said they disapproved of the way their own “representative is handling his or her job.”
The New York Times/CBS News poll began last Friday, four days after the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and two weeks after the White House began its offensive on security issues. A USA Today-Gallup Poll published Tuesday reported that Mr. Bush’s job approval rating had jumped to 44 percent from 39 percent. The questioning in that poll went through Sunday; The Times and CBS completed questioning Tuesday night. Presidential addresses often produce shifts in public opinion that tend to be transitory.
The nationwide poll was conducted by telephone Friday through Tuesday. It included 1,131 adults, of whom 1,007 said they were registered to vote, and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
As part of the Republican effort to gain advantage on the war in Iraq, Republicans have accused Democrats who want to set a timetable for leaving Iraq of wanting to “cut and run.” But 52 percent of respondents said they would not think the United States had lost the war if it withdrew its troops from Iraq today.
The poll also found indications that voters were unusually intrigued by this midterm election: 43 percent said they were more enthusiastic than usual about voting. However, with turnout promising to be a critical factor in many of the closer Senate and House races, there was no sign that either party had an edge in terms of voter enthusiasm.
Evidence of the antipathy toward Congress in particular — and Washington in general — was abundant: 71 percent said they did not trust the government to do what is right.
“If they had new blood, then the people that influence them — the lobbyists — would maybe not be so influential,” said Norma Scranton, a Republican from Thedford, Neb., in a follow-up interview after the poll. “They don’t have our interest at heart because they’re influenced by these lobbyists. If they were new, maybe they would try to please their constituents a little better.”
Lois Thurber, a Republican from Axtell, Neb., said in a follow-up interview: “There’s so much bickering, so much disagreement — they just can’t get together on certain issues.
“They’re kind of more worried about themselves than they are about the country.”
Incumbents and challengers nationwide are trying to accommodate this sour mood. Democrats are presenting themselves as a fresh start — “Isn’t it time for a change?” asked an advertisement by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee directed against Senator Jim Talent, Republican of Missouri.
And Republican incumbents are seeking to distance themselves from fellow Republicans in Washington. “I’ve gone against the president and the Republican leadership when I think they are wrong,” Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican locked in a tough re-election battle, said in a television advertisement broadcast this week.
The Republicans continue to be seen as the better party to deal with terrorism, but by nowhere near the margin they once enjoyed: it is now 42 percent to 37 percent. When asked which party took the threat of terrorism more seriously, 69 percent said they both did; 22 percent named Republicans, compared with 6 percent who said Democrats.
Voters said Democrats were more likely to tell the truth than Republicans when discussing the war in Iraq and about the actual threat of terrorism. And 59 percent of respondents said Mr. Bush was hiding something when he talked about how things were going in Iraq; an additional 25 percent said he was mostly lying when talking about the war.
Not that Democrats should draw any solace from that: 71 percent of respondents said Democrats in Congress were hiding something when they talked about how well things were going in Iraq, while 13 percent said they were mostly lying.
Robert Allen, a Democrat from Ventura, Calif., said: “We’re in a stalemate right now. They’re not getting hardly anything done.” He added, “It’s time to elect a whole new bunch so they can do something.”
Megan C. Thee, Marjorie Connelly and Marina Stefan contributed reporting.