A new poll of likely voters finds that President Bush and his party no longer have the advantage on issues of foreign policy and national security, which they used to dominate.
The poll, conducted for NPR by a Republican and a Democratic pollster, suggests that the ongoing instability in Iraq, the Dubai ports deal, job outsourcing and other global issues in the news lately appear to be weighing heavily on voters' minds in this midterm election year.
The poll was conducted for NPR March 12-14, 2006, by Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research:
Republican pollster Glen Bolger says that, from his perspective, the results are a "bunch of ugly numbers."
The poll found the president's approval rating at 39 percent. Of the 58 percent of respondents who said they disapprove, a whopping 45 percent "disapprove strongly." When asked what pollsters call the generic ballot question — "If the election were held today, would you vote for the Democrat or the Republican candidate?" — those surveyed favored Democrats by one of the largest margins in decades, 52 percent to 37 percent. (That's a bigger margin than Republicans enjoyed just before they captured the House in 1994).
"This is not the only poll that is showing significant problems for Republicans on the generic ballot, significant problems for the president," Bolger says.
"We're in a hole, and we're at a point where we've got to start digging our way out, as opposed to digging deeper."
It's not uncommon to see polls where Democrats beat Republicans on domestic issues, such as the economy and jobs, health care and Social Security. But in this poll, when asked which party they trust more on issues such as the Iraq war, foreign ownership of U.S. ports and attention to homeland security, majorities chose the Democrats. Only on the question of Iranian nuclear weapons do the president and his party come out ahead.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says the numbers present Democrats with a real opportunity for electoral gains. "All of these issues are related to different kinds of foreign threats to the country," he notes. "On every single issue, voters favor the Democrats. This is a different landscape — we were looking for 20-point advantages for Republicans on anything related to security. This ought to be the center of where you would trust the Republicans, and that's not happening here. There's clearly a new opening, new doubts about the Republicans and new openings for the Democrats."
Charles King, a retired logger from North Bend, Ore., was one of those polled. He describes himself as a strong Republican and says Iraq is the issue that's changed his opinion of President Bush.
"I think he's a little out of touch with the people," King says of the president. "I'm unhappy with the Iraq situation. It was supposed to be 'get in, get it done, and get out of there,' and so far that's not happening."
In this year's midterm elections, Democrats will argue it's time for a change. That seems to be working with Eric Meiner, a political independent from Charlotte, N.C., who says he now trusts the Democrats more to deal with the war in Iraq.
"At this point in time in the war, I think the Democrats can handle it best, only because the Republicans have been handling it for three years, and it's become a real failure," Meiner says.
The furor over the Dubai ports deal touched raw nerves for many voters. Bette Marheska, from Boiling Springs Lakes, N.C., says she trusted the Democrats more on the ports issue because of her concerns about global competition for American jobs, as well as homeland security.
"The Democrats, I think, are more home-based," Marheska says. "I think they're more likely to say, 'We need to take care of home first before we go take care of them,' so I think they're better equipped for it. "
Markeska gives Democrats the credit for stopping the ports deal, but it was the Republican stampede against the deal that finally scuttled it. Glenn Bolger says the poll shows that Republicans in Congress helped themselves politically by abandoning the president.
"One clear piece of evidence in the data is that Republicans benefited by showing some independence from the president on the ports deal," Bolger says. "Democrats have a 16-point advantage over the president in terms of who [voters] trust, and only an 8-point advantage over the Republicans on the ports deal. So the Republican Congress' stand of independence cut the Democratic advantage on this issue in half."
Democrats hope the president's low approval ratings will continue to drag his party down.
"It is because the president's popularity is clearly the center of this," Democratic pollster Greenberg says. "He's defining the course for the Republicans. They're going to try to separate. I think that's difficult for them to achieve."
Republican pollster Bolger acknowledges that GOP lawmakers face a "careful calculus" in deciding on which issues they will seek to distance themselves from President Bush.
But voters should expect to see many more instances in which Congressional Republicans head in a different direction than the president. It's a strategy for survival in the increasingly choppy waters of this election year.
Most observers think Republicans have only a handful of vulnerable seats this year in the Senate. In the House, politically drawn lines between districts make nearly all incumbents safe.
Still, Democrats are working hard to turn their newfound strengths on security issues into an anti-incumbent wave so big it can wash away the advantages of the party in power.