The adage that voters hate Congress but love their own representatives no longer holds true, according to a poll that shows Americans increasingly sour about the country’s direction and spoiling for change in Washington.
In the George Washington University Battleground Poll, 73 percent of voters said the nation is on the wrong track, compared with just 19 percent who say it’s headed in the right direction, a grim political environment one year out from U.S. House and Senate elections.
The news is worse for Republicans, who lag behind Democrats, 41 percent to 44 percent, in the poll’s measure of which party’s House candidate would be elected if the balloting were held today.
The Republican brand is also tattered, with the party facing a much larger gap between its positive and negative ratings than Democrats. In the survey, 65 percent of voters held an unfavorable view of Republicans in Congress, compared with 27 percent rating them positively. Democrats were viewed unfavorably by 53 percent, compared with 41 percent giving them positive marks.
The midterm campaign “really has the potential to be a wave election” benefiting Democrats, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said in her analysis of the research, released at a breakfast today in Washington.
The Oct. 27-31 survey of 1,000 registered likely voters, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, was conducted by her firm, Lake Research, and the Republican public opinion company The Tarrance Group.
“It is the worst political environment we have seen in a long time,” the Alexandria, Virginia-based Tarrance’s Ed Goeas said at the breakfast, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. While he said he doesn’t expect a wave that sweeps Republicans from their House majority, Goeas conceded his own party is the worse-off of the two.
For the first time in the poll’s 20-year history, more voters disapproved of their own representative than approved -- 50 percent compared with 39 percent -- with those respondents in Republican-held territory more dissatisfied. And by a 2-to-1 ratio, they said they wanted a new member of Congress rather than to re-elect the incumbent. That was also particularly true in Republican-controlled U.S. House districts, where 65 percent said so, compared with 50 percent in Democratic-held districts.
“All incumbents need to be wary, but the intensity of the blame in Republican-controlled districts” among voters “is really quite dramatic,” Lake said.
Fifty percent of voters faulted Republicans for last month’s 16-day partial government shutdown, while 35 percent blamed Democrats.
Goeas said that’s still “not nearly as bad” as what Republicans faced after shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, and may dissipate in the months between now and the 2014 voting. He blamed Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas for obscuring the shortcomings of the 2010 health-care law with his drive to defund the measure.
“When Cruz took us off on a six-week jaunt in terms of defunding, as opposed to talking about the specifics of what was wrong with Obamacare, it basically got us off message,” Goeas said.
The poll also highlights growing challenges for President Barack Obama, who faces low job approval ratings -- 45 percent approve while 52 percent disapprove -- and a sagging personal image. Fifty percent of voters held an unfavorable view of Obama, compared with 48 percent who had a positive impression.
“Once a president loses the trust of the American people in the second term, they never gain it back,” Goeas said. “What is going on with health care right now has the potential of Barack Obama losing the trust of the American people.”
The dynamic could undermine any edge Democrats may have heading into next year’s congressional elections, Lake said.
“Is it possible for us to get the turnout we need if we don’t have a stronger president? That’s really, in my mind, the biggest question,” Lake said. “We would be helped enormously by a president who is engaging voters to turn out to vote, and a president who is laying out a clear economic message.”
The survey shows that Washington dysfunction has replaced both the economy and jobs in the minds of voters as the most important problem, with 26 percent ranking it as most pressing. That’s more than the combined total that rated the economy -- at 13 percent -- and jobs -- at 8 percent -- as the most important problem facing Congress.
“The wave is anti-Washington, and the advantage we have is that we have fewer seats in Washington,” Lake said, referring to Democrats.
The current House breakdown is 231 Republicans and 200 Democrats, with 4 seats vacant. In the Senate, the Democratic caucus numbers 55 seats to Republicans’ 45.
Goeas, the Republican, said the poll shows a mentality among voters of a “plague on both their houses.”