Republicans Trail in Congressional Race Despite Advantage on Issues

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Terrorism, Iraq rated as most important issues

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows international matters top a list of issues that could influence the election this fall. The data also show a clear split in the public's view over which party is better able to handle specific issues, with Republicans faring better on international issues and Democrats on domestic issues. But despite the importance accorded to international issues and the GOP's perceptual advantage on these, results of the latest Gallup "generic" congressional ballot show Democrats continue to lead Republicans by a 50% to 46% margin among likely voters.

If history is any guide, Democrats should gain a few seats in the House of Representatives in this year's midterm elections, given that a Republican president occupies the White House (aside from 1934 and 1998, the president's party has lost seats in every midterm election in the last 100 years). Democrats have held a slight lead over Republicans in four Gallup Poll measurements of the generic congressional ballot since July. However, the issue context of the election is changing in a way that could benefit the Republicans. When asked to choose whether the economy or the possibility of war with Iraq will be more important to their vote, 49% of Americans say Iraq and 42% say the economy. This represents a significant shift from just a few weeks ago, when a Sept. 2-4 poll showed a 57% to 34% advantage in favor of the economy.

Which Is More Important to Your Vote for Congress:
Economic Conditions or the Possibility of War With Iraq?

Importance of Issues for the Election

In addition to the question about the economy and Iraq, Gallup asked Americans to assess how important 15 issues will be to their vote for Congress this fall. Terrorism, the situation in the Middle East and the possibility of war with Iraq are assigned the most importance of the issues, with about eight in 10 saying these issues will be "extremely" or "very important" to their vote. Economic conditions also rank among the most important issues, as 81% say that issue will be extremely or very important, with 37% who say extremely important. Most other domestic issues are rated less important, with abortion and gun policy coming in last among the issues tested in the survey. The general category of foreign affairs only scores a 64% importance rating despite the stated importance of specific foreign policy issues such as Iraq and terrorism.

IMPORTANCE OF ISSUES TO CONGRESSIONAL VOTE

 

2002 Sep 20-22
(sorted by "extremely important")

Extremely
important

Extremely/Very important

%

%

Terrorism

47

83

The situation in the Middle East

44

80

The possibility of war with Iraq

42

78

Economic conditions

37

81

Education

36

75

Healthcare

35

74

Prescription drugs for older Americans

35

71

Social Security

34

71

Corporate corruption

33

69

Unemployment

28

65

The environment

28

61

Foreign affairs

27

64

Taxes

27

60

Gun policy

21

49

Abortion

18

46



Which Party Is Better on Each Issue?

The data show a rather stark contrast in party ratings when Americans are asked to indicate which party would better handle each of the issues. On the four international issues, Republicans hold a decided advantage over the Democrats, including a 29-percentage point lead on terrorism (56% to 27%) and a 19-point lead on the possibility of war with Iraq (52% to 33%). On the 11 domestic issues, Democrats hold the edge, with their biggest advantages on healthcare (61% to 26%), the environment (60% to 28%) and prescription drugs for older Americans (58% to 28%). On the key domestic issue -- the economy -- Democrats have a five-point advantage over the Republicans, 46% to 41%.

PARTY IN CONGRESS THAT WOULD DO A BETTER JOB HANDLING EACH ISSUE

 

2002 Sep 20-22
(sorted by "advantage")


Republican

 


Democrat

Percentage Point
Advantage

%

%

%

Terrorism

56

27

+29

The possibility of war with Iraq

52

33

+19

The situation in the Middle East

51

33

+18

Foreign affairs

49

33

+16

Gun policy

41

42

-1

Economic conditions

41

46

-5

Corporate corruption

38

46

-8

Taxes

38

50

-12

Abortion

33

48

-15

Unemployment

35

51

-16

Education

31

53

-22

Social Security

31

55

-24

Prescription drugs for older Americans

28

58

-30

The environment

28

60

-32

Healthcare

26

61

-35

+

Advantage indicates Republican lead

-

Advantage indicates Democratic lead



Relative Strengths of the Two Parties

The following chart dramatizes the international/domestic divide in the public's perceptions of which party can better handle the issues. Issues that fall in the top half of the graph are among the most important issues, with those in the upper-left quadrant strong points for the Democrats and those in the upper right strengths for the Republicans. Issues in the lower half of the graph are less important to the electorate, and parties' relative strengths on these may not have as much of an impact on the election.

Party Advantage vs. Stated Importance of Issues

Why Aren't Republicans Doing Better?

The puzzle the data present is why Republicans are not doing better in the generic ballot measure despite holding an advantage on most of the top issues. One possible reason is that the shift in the relative importance of the economy and Iraq is recent, and thus has yet to affect voters' thinking about their vote on Nov. 5. If the situation persists, Republicans may make up ground in the future.

It may also be possible that despite the stated importance of foreign affairs to their November vote, voters may in reality not associate Congress with international matters to a large degree since the president and his advisers have the primary responsibility for conducting foreign affairs. So even if congressional Republicans are seen as better on terrorism and Iraq, that advantage may not be quite as crucial as having an advantage on an issue with which Congress is more directly involved, such as Social Security and education policy. Moreover, many Democrats support the president's positions on terrorism and Iraq, lessening the chance for Republicans to capitalize on the issue.

A third way of looking at the data is to revert to the patterns of history. As mentioned before, the overwhelming pattern is for the party occupying the White House to lose congressional seats in a midterm election. This has been the case even when presidents were relatively popular, including Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 (70% approval rating), Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 (61%), John Kennedy in 1962 (61%), and Ronald Reagan in 1986 (63%). George W. Bush's current approval rating is 66%. (But Bill Clinton had a 66% approval rating in 1998 when Democrats bucked the trend and gained seats in that midterm election.)

History also shows that perceptions of the national economy -- especially a struggling economy as exists now -- usually play a crucial role in determining election outcomes. So even if the public explicitly gives an edge to international issues, the economy is not an unimportant consideration, and Democrats currently have a slight edge on this key issue.

A final reason Republicans are not doing better in terms of voters' projected congressional vote could be that other considerations end up being more important than issues for many voters. For years, political scientists have struggled to find evidence of issue voting. A voter's party affiliation plays the greatest role in influencing his or her vote, and election-specific conditions such as whether an incumbent member of Congress is seeking re-election (more than 90% of incumbents routinely win and 74% of likely voters in the current poll say their member of Congress deserves re-election) or the strength of each party's candidates (in terms of how well-known and how well-funded they are) usually have more impact on the vote in congressional elections than debates over national issues. National issues are not irrelevant, though their impact generally comes from more general notions of what shape the country is in, how the economy is performing, and how the president is handling his job rather than from debates over specific issues. Such perceptions helped explain why Democrats performed so well in 1974 (shortly after the Watergate scandal) and 1982 (during an economic recession) and Republicans in 1994 (concerns over Clinton's national healthcare plan and crime). But debates over issues such as Iraq and the economy help inform those general notions.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,010 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 20-22, 2002. 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.

Please tell me whether you think each of the following political office-holders deserves to be reelected, or not. How about -- [ITEM A READ FIRST, THEN ITEMS B-C ROTATED]?

President Bush

 

Yes, deserves

No, does not

No opinion

%

%

%

Likely Voters

(LV) 2002 Sep 20-22

60

36

4

Registered Voters

(RV) 2002 Sep 20-22

60

35

5

(RV) 2002 Apr 29-May 1

69

25

6

(RV) 2001 Aug 24-26

46

44

10

National Adults

(NA) 2002 Sep 20-22

62

33

5

(NA) 2002 Apr 29-May 1

70

25

5

(NA) 2001 Aug 24-26

46

44

10



The U.S. Representative in your Congressional District

 

Yes, deserves

No, does not

No opinion

%

%

%

Likely Voters

(LV) 2002 Sep 20-22

74

18

8

Registered Voters

(RV) 2002 Sep 20-22

67

19

14

(RV) 2002 Apr 29-May 1

67

19

14

(RV) 2001 Aug 24-26

67

20

13

National Adults

(NA) 2002 Sep 20-22

64

19

17

(NA) 2002 Apr 29-May 1

66

18

16

(NA) 2001 Aug 24-26

64

20

16



Most members of the U.S. House of Representatives

 

Yes, deserves

No, does not

No opinion

%

%

%

Likely Voters

(LV) 2002 Sep 20-22

57

31

12

Registered Voters

(RV) 2002 Sep 20-22

57

29

14

(RV) 2002 Apr 29-May 1

57

24

19

(RV) 2001 Aug 24-26

52

30

18

National Adults

(NA) 2002 Sep 20-22

57

28

15

(NA) 2002 Apr 29-May 1

58

22

20

(NA) 2001 Aug 24-26

51

31

18



Thinking ahead to the elections for Congress this November, if you had to choose, which of the following issues will be more important to your vote -- [ROTATED: economic conditions, (or) the possibility of war with Iraq]?

 


Economic
conditions

Possibility of war with Iraq


Both
(vol.)


Neither (vol.)


Other
(vol.)


No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

42

49

7

1

*

1

2002 Sep 2-4

57

34

7

*

0

2

2002 Aug 19-21

55

36

7

*

*

2



How important will each of the following issues be to your vote for Congress this November -- will it be -- extremely important, very important, moderately important, or not that important? How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

ITEMS A-F: BASED ON --492-- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A

ITEMS G-H: BASED ON --1,010-- NATIONAL ADULTS

ITEMS I-O: BASED ON --518-- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

A. Abortion

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

18%

28

24

28

2



B. Education

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

36%

39

22

3

*



C. Foreign affairs

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

27%

37

29

6

1



D. Healthcare

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

35%

39

22

4

*



E. Taxes

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

27%

33

32

7

1



F. Terrorism

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

47%

36

13

3

1



G. The possibility of war with Iraq

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

42

36

15

6

1

2002 Aug 19-21

32

41

18

7

2



H. Economic conditions

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

37

44

17

2

*

2002 Aug 19-21

34

44

17

3

2



I. Corporate corruption

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

33

36

23

8

*

2002 Aug 19-21 ^

35

35

19

9

2

^

Asked of a full sample.



J. The environment

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

28%

33

30

9

*



K. Gun policy

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

21%

28

32

18

1



L. The situation in the Middle East

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

44%

36

16

4

*




M. Social Security

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

34

37

24

5

*

2002 Aug 19-21 ^

34

36

21

7

2

^

Asked of a full sample



N. Unemployment

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

28%

37

29

5

1



O. Prescription drugs for older Americans

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

35%

36

21

8

*



Do you think the Republicans in Congress or the Democrats in Congress would do a better job of dealing with each of the following issues and problems? How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

ITEMS A-F: BASED ON --492-- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A

ITEMS G-H: BASED ON --1,010-- NATIONAL ADULTS

ITEMS I-O: BASED ON --518-- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

A. Abortion

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

33%

48

9

10



B. Education

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

31

53

10

6

2002 Jun 28-30 ^

43

43

8

6

2002 May 28-29

35

41

14

10

^

Asked of a full sample



C. Foreign affairs

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

49

33

10

8

2002 May 28-29

46

27

15

12



D. Healthcare

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

26%

61

7

6



E. Taxes

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

38

50

6

6

2002 May 28-29

43

36

11

10



F. Terrorism

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

56

27

10

7

2002 Jun 28-30 ^

57

22

13

8

2002 May 28-29

51

19

19

11

^

Asked of a full sample



G. The possibility of war with Iraq

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

52%

33

7

8



H. Economic conditions

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

41%

46

6

7



I. Corporate corruption

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

38%

46

8

8



J. The environment

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

28

60

5

7

2002 May 28-29

28

49

12

11



K. Gun policy

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

41

42

7

10

2002 May 28-29

43

35

10

12



L. The situation in the Middle East

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

51%

33

8

8




M. Social Security

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

31

55

6

8

2002 Jun 28-30 ^

38

48

8

6

2002 May 28-29

33

43

14

10

^

Asked of a full sample



N. Unemployment

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

2002 Sep 20-22

35%

51

6

8



O. Prescription drugs for older Americans

 


Republicans


Democrats

No difference (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2002 Sep 20-22

28

58

6

8

2002 May 28-29

29

45

13

13



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