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Pew Survey Paints Bleak Picture for GOP

October 26, 2006 at 3:50 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Over the course of the campaign, Jim, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center and a NewsHour regular, has been measuring changes in voter attitudes on the issues and political preferences. He joins us now, fresh from the field this week, to share brand new findings.

And often midterm elections, Andy, are low-turnout affairs. What does it look like this time?

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Center for the People and the Press: It’ll be maybe a little bit higher, but still in relative terms a low turnout affair, with less than 40 percent or 40 percent at most of the age-eligible population voting.

But what we see this time, which is unusual, and that is there is more Democratic enthusiasm about voting. The Democratic voters are all pumped up. The Republicans are a little deflated. And the Democrats look like they’re going to hold their own when it comes to getting out to the polls in a week and a half.

Nationwide Democratic lead

RAY SUAREZ: So it may be that kind of enthusiasm that gives you this number that we're going to take a look at among registered voters. Tell us what you found here.

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, this is what we found all year. We have 11 percentage-point Democratic lead when we ask people about who they're going to vote for when they go to the polls and cast a ballot for their local member of Congress.

But what we did differently in this poll is we over-sampled the 40 competitive districts. We wanted to dig a little more deeply, because these are the places where the election is going to be won or lost for these two parties.

And what did we find? We found about the same. We found the 39 percent to 50 percent Democratic lead. So the Democrats are leading nationwide. They're also leading in the competitive seats, in the competitive districts.

One of the things that really struck me was that, when we went into many of the safe Republican districts, we still saw some evidence of a Republican tide. We had to get to districts where President Bush had a 60 percent victory in 2004 in order to see big Republican margins, margins for the House this year. That's the extent of the Democratic tide as apparent in our poll.

RAY SUAREZ: And this is something, if I follow your narrative, that hasn't really changed that much throughout calendar 2006?

ANDREW KOHUT: Not a bit, and that's very unusual. Even in 1994, there was a fair amount of voter volatility, the other great election of change. But here it's very solid; it seems like the voters have conviction about going Democratic this time.

Iraq war No. 1 issue

RAY SUAREZ: Let's take a look at what they're telling you about the importance of the Iraq war in their decision in the voting booth this November.

ANDREW KOHUT: Quite simply, they say it's the number one issue for them. When we ask these people who say they're going to be thinking about national issues, what one issue? Iraq is the top.

Now, there are other issues. There's the economy, and there's terrorism, and there's immigration, but Iraq stands apart, stands head and shoulders above that issue, as the issue that really has set the tone for the country. People are depressed about how the war in Iraq is going.

And it's changed people's attitudes about Washington as much as anything else, more so, I would say, than the scandals, more so than the economy that hasn't provided for middle-class people. Iraq is the issue.

And it comes at of an unfortunate time for the Republicans. We have the single largest percentage of people since the beginning of the war saying the war is not going well. And we even have many Republicans at this point beginning to say the war is not going well.

Democratic advantage on issues

RAY SUAREZ: And if you've got six out of 10 nationally saying that Iraq is their top issue and six out of 10 saying it's not going well, let's take a look at this next set of statistics. When Democrats say who they trust or the margins for which party they trust in dealing with the issues, there's Iraq right at the top again.

ANDREW KOHUT: At the top. And for the first time, we have more people expressing confidence in the Democrats on Iraq than the Republicans, and the Democrats on most of the major issues. There are just a handful -- there are three issues that we've polled on -- terrorism, North Korea, and crime -- where there's -- or immigration, where there's plurality for the Republicans.

So the Republican Party and -- the Democratic Party has a great advantage on the basis of how much more poorly the public feels about Republicans as a consequence of their anger at Washington. President Bush with a 37 percent approval rating; the Congress with a 24 percent approval rating. And people blame the Republicans, and that's why we saw the kind of numbers that you see in those slides.

RAY SUAREZ: But we're also seeing different key slices of the electorate now reporting something very different from what they did in the last midterm election. Tell us about that.

Evaporating support for Republicans

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, we see independents, who's the most important swing group. We now have independents supporting the Democrats at a margin of 30-46. And it was evenly divided four years ago. We have older people, voters 65 of age and older, voting for a plurality, saying they're going to vote for Democrats.

Better educated people, Midwestern voters, women, particularly moms, the terrorism edge that we saw the Republican Party hold in the last two elections, especially among married women, has all but evaporated. It has evaporated.

RAY SUAREZ: And no feeling of optimism about the economy helping the Republicans out, putting some wind in their sails?

ANDREW KOHUT: What really surprised me, in the poll that we just completed, we haven't seen an up-tick in optimism about the national economy or about one's personal finances, even though those gasoline prices have come down.

I think the pain still remains. People are gloomy about wages. And there maybe it just has not been enough time for the good effects of the gasoline prices going down to help the Republicans. What I'm saying all sounds very one-sided, it all sounds very Democratic, but I can't find anything else to say that would give a little more hope for something less than a really strong Democratic performance on Election Day, if these numbers hold.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, thanks for being with us, Andy.

ANDREW KOHUT: You're welcome.