Midterm Election Update: Race for the House

by Lydia Saad

Congress approval improves slightly


PRINCETON, NJ -- Continuing a several month trend, the Democratic Party holds a strong lead over the Republicans in Gallup's latest generic ballot measure of the midterm congressional elections. According to the June 1-4, 2006 Gallup Poll, Democratic candidates are favored for this fall's U.S. House of Representatives election by 51% of all registered voters nationwide, while Republican candidates are favored by 42% of voters.

The current nine-point Democratic lead on the generic ballot is slightly lower than the average 14-point lead held by Democrats in the four previous Gallup measures conducted between February and April. However, it is still among the widest advantages the Democratic Party has enjoyed on this important indicator of congressional electoral strength since the Republican Party came to majority power in Congress in 1994.

A key factor determining the Republicans' chances for retaining majority control of Congress will be the extent to which they can get Republican voters to the polls in November. Midterm elections typically draw out only about 35% of the national public, much lower than the 50-55% who vote in presidential elections. In recent years, this lower turnout has been to the Republicans' advantage, as a disproportionate number of Republican voters have been represented at the polls.

Gallup will not be analyzing the midterm elections on the basis of "likely voters" until closer to election time. However, an analysis of a more loosely defined group of "regular voters" (those who say they "always vote" and report that they voted in the last midterm election) finds this group even more likely to support the Democrats for Congress than does the larger group of all registered voters.

Regular voters currently give the Democrats a 15-point advantage over the Republicans, 55% vs. 40% -- slightly greater than the 51% to 42% Democratic lead among all registered voters.

Congress Approval Still in Red Zone

Not only does the Democrats' recent advantage on the generic ballot raise doubts about the Republicans' ability to retain the majority this November, but widespread disapproval of the job Congress is doing suggests many voters may be ready for a change of leadership.

There has, however, been a slight improvement in the job approval rating for Congress this month, although it remains very low. At this point, only 27% of American approve of the job Congress is doing, while 63% disapprove. This is a slight increase from the 21% approval rating measured last month, which in turn was a near-record low for the institution, just slightly above the all-time low of 18% in March 1992.

Public opinion of Congress is thus restored to where it was in the first quarter of 2006. The latest poll recorded a similar rebound in public approval of President Bush's job performance since last month, registering 36% up from 33% in early May.

Still, with ratings of Congress in the 20s, a glaring cautionary note remains in order for the Republican Party. As noted by Gallup Managing Editor Jeff Jones earlier this year, "In the five elections since 1974 in which Congress' approval rating was below 40%, the average net change in U.S. House seats from one party to the other was 29. In the three midterm elections in which congressional approval ratings were above 40%, the average change was five seats." (see "Congressional Approval Low -- Will a Democratic Tide Hit in November?" in related items.)

The Republicans currently hold a 30-seat advantage over the Democrats in the House, 231 to 201, making the GOP majority highly vulnerable by historical standards in a high-turnover year.

Republicans Standing by Their Candidates

The Republican Party's weakness in the generic ballot is not the result of disloyalty from its own base. As of today, 94% of Republicans say they are backing the Republican candidate in their district and a similar 97% of Democrats say they are backing the Democrat. The Democrats' overall advantage with voters comes from the fact that independents favor Democrats over the Republicans by a 44% to 36% margin.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,002 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 1-4, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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