Reinforcing the picture of a closely divided public, registered voters again split nearly evenly when asked which party they specifically intend to support in the congressional election in their district: 43 percent picked Republicans, and 42 percent chose Democrats.
All of these achingly slim margins capture how closely divided—and ambivalent—the public remains a year before the 2012 election. The results underscore the possibility of a rare election that punishes incumbents from both parties and document how much support both Obama and the GOP Congress have hemorrhaged while governing in a period of unrelenting partisan conflict and grinding economic anxiety.
The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll is conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which surveyed 1,002 adults by landline and cell phone from October 27 through 30. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points. The sample size of registered voters is 770, and the margin of error for that group is 4.2 percent.
Comparing the new survey to exit polls from the 2010 election shows a rapid decline in support for House Republicans across a wide range of constituencies. In 2010, the Edison Research exit poll found that white voters backed Republicans over Democrats in House elections by an unprecedented 60 percent to 37 percent. But in the new survey, whites prefer that Republicans control the House by only 46 percent to 38 percent.
Whites without a college education still want a Republican-run House by a solid 47 percent to 34 percent, but that’s a big decline from the GOP’s nearly 2-to-1 advantage with those voters in 2010. College-educated whites now split almost evenly, with 46 percent picking Democrats and 45 percent preferring Republicans. In 2010, Republicans won those college-educated whites by 19 percentage points.
The Republican wave in 2010 carried a distinct touch of gray: The GOP won about three-fifths of whites over 50. But now those older whites split, with 42 percent preferring Democratic control and 40 percent Republican. Those numbers may reflect anxiety about the GOP’s efforts to restructure entitlement programs, especially Medicare. In many cases, although the Republican support among these groups has declined since 2010, the Democratic number hasn’t increased much.
In the survey, the GOP attracts 55 percent of whites ages 18 to 49, numbers closer to their 2010 performance, and 28 percent of nonwhite voters prefer that the GOP hold the House—virtually the same share that supported them in 2010. That may reflect discontent among economically hard-hit Hispanics.
When the 41 percent who preferred that the GOP maintain House control were asked why, they split nearly in half between those who said that the party had done a good job and those who said the party had not done a good job but they did not want Democrats back in charge. That means only 1-in-5 registered voters believes the House GOP deserves to be reelected because it has done a good job; this number rises only to 47 percent even among Republicans.
Obama’s situation is precarious as well. Whites, by a margin of 49 percent to 38 percent, prefer that a Republican win the White House; that’s comparable to Obama’s 12-percentage-point deficit among whites in 2008. Noncollege whites prefer a Republican president by 19 points, almost exactly Obama’s deficit last time. He now leads, though, among college-educated whites by 45 percent to 42 percent; they tilted slightly toward John McCain last time.
The poll surprisingly shows Obama improving from 2008 (although still slightly trailing) among older whites and struggling with younger whites who boosted him last time. More troubling for Obama: 30 percent of nonwhites say they prefer a Republican. He won 80 percent of those voters in 2008.
Among all adults, the poll found, Obama leads a Republican by 45 percent to 39 percent, while a comparable 44 percent to 36 percent plurality prefers Democratic House control. The gap between that result, and the much narrower splits among registered voters, underscores the stakes for Democrats in the Obama campaign’s expensive effort to register millions of potential supporters before Election Day.
This article appears in the Nov. 1, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.