A combination of sky-high GOP enthusiasm, a deep sense of pessimism about the country’s direction and dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama's stewardship of the economy has given Republicans a clear advantage heading into the November midterm elections, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
With the Labor Day holiday marking the traditional starting point of the campaign season, Republicans have a nine-point edge among those considered likely voters, plus a near 20-point lead among those expressing the highest amount of interest in the midterms.
In addition, six in 10 believe the country is on the wrong track; nearly two-thirds think the nation is in a state of decline; and a similar number aren't confident that their children’s generation will enjoy a better life.
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Perhaps more ominous for Democrats, the number of Americans who approve of Obama's handling of the economy — the top issue in the country — has declined below 40 percent for the first time.
“We all know that there is a hurricane coming for the Democrats,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “We just don’t know if it will be a Category 4 or a Category 5.”
The survey shows that among likely voters — based on their interest and past voting history — 49 percent prefer a Republican-controlled Congress while 40 percent want one run by Democrats. Among those expressing a high interest in voting, that GOP lead increases 18 points, 53 percent to 35 percent.
Among all registered voters, however, both parties are tied on the generic ballot, 43 percent to 43 percent, suggesting that Democrats could potentially blunt GOP gains in November with high turnout at the polls.
But right now, according to the poll, the interest level in the midterms is down among Democrats, African-Americans and younger Americans compared to 2006, when the Democratic Party won control of both the House and Senate.
If Democrats lose control of Congress, Hart argues, it’s “because they didn’t vote.”
(Republicans need to pick up a net of 39 House and 10 Senate seats to back control of those chambers.)
Besides focusing on Election Day turnout, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicates that Democrats could also find success by stressing unpopular connections within the Republican Party.
For starters, 68 percent of respondents say they’re uncomfortable or have reservations about candidates who support phasing out Social Security and would allow workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market.
That position — shared by Republicans like Senate nominees Sharron Angle in Nevada and Joe Miller in Alaska — ranks worst on the poll's list of nine candidate attributes.
The second worst: support of George W. Bush's economic policies. Sixty-two percent of survey takers had problems with that political trait.
But Democrats might find some difficulty in making that argument stick in the fall elections. According to the poll, 58 percent believe that Republicans — if they take back control of Congress — will have ideas that differ from the Bush administration's.
Just 35 percent believe that would mark a return to the former president's policies.
“That’s going to be a good deal more difficult to make stick,” says McInturff, the Republican pollster.
But Hart counters that Democrats still have to make that argument. “As much as the Republicans have going for them, that’s as good of a post-up as Democrats have.”
Obama’s popularity takes a hit
The survey puts Obama’s approval rating at 45 percent, which is down two points from the last poll in early August.
What’s more, only 39 percent approve of his handling of the economy — his lowest mark on this question. “That is a huge danger sign,” McInturff says.
Conversely, 52 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the Iraq war, which is up three points.
The poll was conducted Aug. 26-30, before the president’s announcement of the end of combat operations in Iraq, but after news of the last combat brigade’s exit from the country. The survey, taken of 1,000 adults (200 by cell phone), has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.
For Obama, however, the most troubling numbers are those showing that his popularity has taken a hit with some key swing groups. Among seniors, his favorable/unfavorable rating is 39 percent to 53 percent; among blue-collar workers, it’s 36 percent to 45 percent; among suburban residents, it’s 39 percent to 48 percent; and among independents, it’s 39 percent to 45 percent.
‘Disgust with the present and doubts about the future’
But the poll suggests that the public is more dissatisfied with the country’s direction than with Obama’s performance.
For instance, 61 percent say the United States is headed in the wrong direction; 65 percent believe the nation is in a state of decline; and 66 percent say they’re not confident that life for their children’s generation will be better than it is now.
In addition, Americans are deeply pessimistic about the state of the economy. Only 26 percent think the economy will improve in the next 12 months (which is down 14 points from the poll), and just 26 percent believe their wages will increase in the next year.
Confidence in key U.S. institutions is also incredibly low: 18 percent have confidence in the federal government; 13 percent have confidence in the news media; 12 percent have confidence in large corporations; 10 percent have confidence in the financial industry; and only 9 percent have confidence in Congress.
The numbers for the media and Congress are the lowest for those institutions in the entire history of the poll.
Hart says that this “disgust with the present and doubts about the future” are the “picture and backdrop” for the upcoming elections.
Iraq, Afghanistan and the N.Y. mosque
Turning to foreign policy, 53 percent think the Iraq war has been successful, versus 43 percent who say it has been unsuccessful.
Regarding the president's call for a conditions-based reduction in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by July 2011, 37 percent say U.S. troops should be removed depending upon the military conditions next year; 25 percent say they should be removed only after the Afghan government has stabilized and the Taliban is defeated; 18 percent want them removed now; and 16 percent want them removed on the timetable of July 2011.
And concerning the controversial mosque that’s planned to be built near Ground Zero in New York City, 51 percent say they oppose it, while only 22 percent support its construction.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.