The poll was conducted for NPR May 7-8 and May 10, by Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. It consisted of a national telephone survey of 800 likely voters. The survey has a margin of error of +/-3.46 percentage points.
Alice Kreit, NPR
Alice Kreit, NPR
Americans are feeling pessimistic about the direction the country is heading, a new bipartisan NPR poll suggests. They're increasingly leaning toward alignment with the Democratic Party and divided over their choices for president in the fall.
An unprecedented 80 percent of likely voters surveyed said the United States is on the wrong track — a huge jump from the 68 percent who felt that way in the previous NPR poll in January.
The latest dissatisfaction level is reflected in other polls conducted recently by the Gallup Organization and several newspapers and TV networks.
When asked about the job President Bush is doing, 65 percent of respondents overall said they disapproved and a bare majority, 51 percent, said they disapproved strongly.
That might help explain why, after years of near-equity between the parties, more voters called themselves Democrats than Republicans by a difference of 10 percentage points.
In something of a contradiction, however, the head-to-head match-ups for the White House are considerably closer. Those polled preferred Democratic Sen. Barack Obama over Republican Sen. John McCain by 5 percentage points, while McCain and Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton were virtually tied.
Republican Glen Bolger, who conducted the most recent NPR survey along with Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, says that while these presidential margins might be narrow, the math is pretty clear.
"There are more Democrats in the country than there are Republicans," Bolger says. "And Obama's ahead among independents. That's the battleground for 2008, and Senator McCain has to do well with independent voters in order to win because there's simply not enough Republicans."
A majority of the 800 likely voters who took part in the NPR poll felt that Sens. Clinton of New York and Obama of Illinois have plans to address middle-class tax relief, health care and the economy. But a majority did not feel the same way about McCain, even though he has hit the campaign trail in recent weeks specifically to lay out his positions.
Greenberg says the Arizona senator may have been blocked out by the media focus on the lively nomination fight on the Democratic side.
"Even though McCain has released his economic plan and gave a major speech on the economy, it's very clear voters have no idea," Greenberg says. "The primary process is indeed keeping them focused on the Democrats."
At a time when the number of people who view the Republican Party is dwindling, McCain runs well ahead of his brand. This may be because of voters such as Johnny Holcomb, a registered independent from Midlothian, Va.
"I just think of the three, McCain would probably be better," Holcomb says. "He's the one that's got military experience, and I think we need someone with military experience in there. The other two seem to be fighting too much between themselves."
Margaret Street of Coralville, Iowa, says she supports Obama but is keeping an open mind about McCain.
"I'm not as turned off by McCain as some of the other Republicans we've had," Street says. "He seems to consider what his actions are gonna do as far as affects the rest of the world and affects the U.S., and that's what I'm looking for. I don't feel like we have a president who does that right now."
Those voters represent something of a silver lining for Bolger, the Republican pollster.
"Ultimately, it's not just issues that win an election in November for president," he says. "People are making a choice between two candidates. Issues are going to be part of it, but that's not all. And the political environment is going to be part of it, but that's not all, as well."
If the political environment is negative, one reason is still the war in Iraq. The NPR poll tested likely voters' support for the Republican argument backing the current presence in Iraq and found that more than one-third said the GOP position hewed more closely to their own views.
"It's really a strong attack," says Greenberg. "But they lose [the issue] on average by about 20 points in this survey. This I believe represents their strongest case on attack on Obama — but the country clearly wants to start reducing troops, clearly wants to start thinking about the money there and how we strengthen our economy."
Bolger sounds a similar note on the results of the poll.
"I think Iraq is going to continue to be a problem for Republicans across the board going into this election," Bolger says, "just as it was in 2006."
That can't be reassuring to a Republican Party that lost control of Congress that year, or to Republicans who hope they can still hold on to the White House this year.