Voters might lean Republican amid this year’s anti-incumbent fervor, but that doesn’t mean they’re giddy at the idea of GOP control in Washington.
Registered voters are evenly split at 32 percent when asked if the country would be better with Republicans or Democrats in control of Congress next year, according to the latest Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted with the Pew Research Center. Perhaps more telling, nearly as many voters, 30 percent, said it doesn’t make a difference which party is in control.
When likely voters are sampled, Republicans make only marginal gains. Thirty-eight percent of them say the country would be in better shape if the GOP took control of Congress, compared to 34 percent who prefer Democrats. Twenty-three percent said it made no difference.
The numbers offer a major disappointment for the GOP, which had a 10-point edge in a generic ballot of likely voters from earlier this month. In that Pew poll, the score was 50-40 percent. But the generic ballot can also be used simply as a protest against incumbent Democrats, said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center.
Asking them which party would do a better job in charge of Congress, as this week’s Congressional Connection poll did, is a more pointed question that taps into feelings of cynicism about political leaders in both parties.
“It’s not a widespread vote of confidence for Republicans, and I think you’re seeing reluctance on that part from voters,” said Doherty. “There’s a good deal of cynicism out there about prospects for change regardless of what happens.”
GOP leaders, in fact, acknowledge that their party remains unpopular in polls. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told National Journal, “There is no polling data that suggests [the voters] love us.”
But despite the muted reception for overall GOP control, Republicans can still take heart in some parts of the poll that show why they’re poised to make big gains next week. Their most important advantage is in the suburbs, where Democrats seeking shelter from this year’s political storm are in for a rude awakening.
Thirty-seven percent of registered suburban voters said it would be better for the country if Republicans took control of Congress, compared to 30 percent who said the country would be better off with Democrats. Those numbers are strikingly similar to how voters in rural areas, typically Republican strongholds, responded: 37 percent of registered voters said Republicans should control Congress, compared to 27 percent who preferred Democrats.
Democrats had made significant gains in the suburbs in recent elections, particularly in more affluent, well-educated areas. But Republicans, riding a wave of voter anger that has them poised at least to retake the House, are likely to reverse that progress. “These are areas that are looking pretty Republican at the moment,” said Doherty.
Independent voters who shifted decisively toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008 have also turned 180 degrees. Thirty-four percent of registered independents say the country would be better off if Republicans control Congress, with just 18 percent preferring Democrats. “That’s almost 2-to-1,” said Doherty. “That’s a pretty wide gap among independents.”
Still, Democrats can take heart from at least one part of the poll. Forty percent of those independents — who on the whole now prefer Republicans — also said that it doesn’t make a difference which party is in control.
Meanwhile, there is a dramatic split among white and non-white groups over which party should control Congress. Forty-one percent of registered white voters think the country would be better with Republicans in charge, compared to 26 percent who favor Democrats. Among non-white registered voters, only 8 percent think Republicans should run Congress, compared to 49 percent supporting Democrats.
The only white subgroup to remain loyal, on the whole, to Democrats is college-educated women. They still favor Democratic control over Republican control, 42-32 percent. These women have become a major focus of some Democratic campaigns, particularly in California, where Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has aggressively criticized her Republican opponent, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, particularly over Fiorina’s opposition to abortion rights. That dynamic is playing out in California’s governor’s race as well, where Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown is hoping to hold off former eBay CEO Meg Whitman.
Among women with some college or less, and among men of all education levels, registered voters overwhelmingly think the country would be better off if Republicans take over next year.
The survey also indicates that the more money somebody has, the more likely they are to prefer that Republicans control Congress. Registered voters making more than $75,000 prefer a GOP takeover to a Democratic continuance by 40-28 percent. From $30,000 to $74,999, the gap shrinks to 36 percent for Republicans and 30 percent for Democrats. Those making less than $30,000 overwhelmingly think the country is better off with Democrats in control, 40 percent to 20 percent.
The poll was conducted Oct. 21 through Oct. 24. The registered voter sample of 846 has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points, and the likely voter sample of 588 had a 5-point error margin of error.
This article appears in the Oct. 26, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.