THE TIMES POLL : Voters Shift to GOP but Reject Party’s Policies


As the congressional election approaches, Americans are rejecting key elements of the Republican campaign platform, but seem intent on handing the GOP a victory anyway, according to the latest Los Angeles Times Poll.

President Clinton’s popularity appears to have turned up slightly in the last month--from a rating a month ago of 42% approval and 52% disapproval to a better, but still negative, 44% to 50% in the current poll. What improvement there has been seems to have come on the basis of foreign policy, where poll respondents are now practically evenly divided on his performance--48% approve and 46% disapprove--as opposed to his 36%-55% rating in September and similarly negative ratings during most of this year.

By 51% to 42%, those polled approve of Clinton’s handling of the situation in Haiti, and by 59% to 30% they approve of his handling of Iraq--about the same rating that former President George Bush received during the months immediately before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.


But the foreign policy upswing has been insufficient to stem the Republican drift of the electorate, the poll indicates. Respondents gave Clinton remarkably little credit for any accomplishments, even in areas where he has, in fact, won victories. And on issues across the board, they now say that they believe the Republicans can do a better job than Democrats to solve their problems.

Asked which party can do a better job on the country’s major problems, 36% favored Republicans, 29% chose Democrats and 15% said neither party--the first time during Clinton’s presidency that Republicans have had an advantage on that question.

The GOP holds similar edges on individual issues, including crime, welfare reform, the economy and the federal budget deficit. Even on health care, where the Democrats once enjoyed a large margin, the two sides are now even, at 38%, with 14% saying that neither party is up to the job.

The GOP edge generally has not come about because Republicans have won major improvements in their ratings as problem-solvers. Instead, respondents turned away from the Democrats, dropping their ratings. Moreover, the percentage saying they think that neither party can handle the nation’s problems has risen.

Regardless of the cause, however, the GOP has reaped the benefit. Asked which party’s candidates they intend to vote for next month, those surveyed on a “generic ballot” now give a 5-point edge to the Republicans, 45% to 40%.

Congressional elections, of course, are won and lost on a local basis, not by a single national vote. In many races, individual factors, from the financial strength of incumbents to the ideological differences between particular candidates, could help Democrats stave off Republican efforts.


Nonetheless, the generic ballot has served as a fairly reliable political barometer over the years. Generally, Democrats have lost seats when the Republicans have approached parity on the question. The current GOP lead--something that has not occurred since July, 1953, except briefly after the Gulf War--could forecast a Republican surge large enough to win control of the House.

The poll, supervised by Times Poll Director John Brennan, surveyed 1,272 adult Americans, including 1,016 self-identified registered voters, between Oct. 17 and Oct. 19. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for the entire sample and 4 points for the registered voters.

The apparent Republican edge in the upcoming election exists despite the fact that majorities of those polled disagree with the Republicans on many key issues.

Most strikingly, on the issue on which Clinton has tried to focus the campaign during the last two weeks, those polled said, by 46% to 35%, that they would prefer to “stick with President Clinton’s programs” for the economy rather than “return to the types of programs put forth by Ronald Reagan when he was President.”

Those polled said they think the government should spend more on domestic programs, by 61% to 32%; 25% said the government should spent a “great deal more.” The percentage who said defense spending should increase has gone up notably since Clinton’s inauguration but still--by a narrow 48%-45% margin--respondents said the country should not spend more on defense.

More strikingly, asked if they believe that the United States has “adequate military strength,” 44% said yes, with another 25% saying that U.S. defenses are “more than enough.” Only 28% accepted the argument of leading Republicans that U.S. defense strength no longer is adequate to deal “with all potential international crises.”


Asked about the Republican promise, made in the party’s “contract with America,” to cut taxes, increase defense spending and still balance the budget simultaneously, 55% said they believe the package to be “unrealistic,” while only 30% called it realistic.

Even among self-described Republicans, nearly a third call the party’s pledge unrealistic. Democrats may have limited ability to capitalize on that, however, because 82% of those polled said they had never heard of the Republican contract.

The poll shows strong support, 77% to 19%, for placing a limit on the number of terms a member of Congress can serve. But, asked whether they prefer to be represented by an “experienced politician” or a “political outsider,” those polled chose the experienced politician by a 51%-36% margin--rejecting what has been a key message of Republicans across the country.

While the Democrats may be winning the argument on many individual issues, they are losing the allegiance of key blocks of swing voters--a trend driven by Clinton’s unpopularity and voter unease over the future of the economy. In the 1992 congressional elections, The Times’ exit polls showed that Democrats won the backing of a narrow, 49%-43% plurality of independent voters. They also won the battle of the crossovers, picking up 16% of Republican voters while Republican candidates won the votes of only 10% of self-described Democrats.

This year, all that has changed. Independents are swinging Republican by a 47%-28% margin. And, while 12% of Democrats said that they plan to defect, only 5% of Republicans do.

The central bloc that appears to be swinging the election is the roughly one-fifth of registered voters who are not Republicans, but who said that they plan to vote for Republicans this year. That group is predominantly male, white, older, middle income, and moderate-to-conservative ideologically. They are overwhelmingly anti-Clinton, with only 19% approving of his job performance, and deeply cynical about the political process--55% said neither Clinton nor the Republicans have done much that is worthwhile, compared with 41% of respondents overall.


By a majority of nearly 3 to 1, respondents describe themselves as “angry” about how the federal government is working. But the swing-bloc voters are particularly angry. Among the smaller group of voters who described themselves as “very angry” about Washington, Republicans lead, 57% to 21%, on the generic ballot. Democrats lead, although narrowly, among all other voters.

But what, exactly, people are angry about is less clear. Asked about gridlock in Washington, for example, 48% said it is bad but 42% agreed with the statement that gridlock is good “because it keeps Congress and the President from passing new programs that would hurt the country.”

And on several fronts, the poll indicates a sharp disconnect between how people view conditions that they can directly experience and their perceptions of the nation as a whole. For example, a majority of respondents, 53%, said they believe that the economy remains in recession, despite more than a year of steady economic growth. At the same time, however, a large majority, 69%, said their own personal financial circumstances are “very secure” or “fairly secure.”

Similarly, respondents said, 66% to 26%, that the country is on the “wrong track.” But across the country, with the notable exception of California, those same respondents tend to be more positive about their own states. In the industrial Midwest, for example, those polled said by 56% to 34% that their own states are on the right track; but by 61% to 27%, they said that the nation is on the wrong track.

Much of the anger appears to be focused on Clinton, and the President continues to be a drag on his party’s ticket. One-third of the registered voters polled said they would be less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who would support Clinton, compared with only 19% who said that they would be more likely to vote for such a person.

A big part of the reason why these and other voters have swung away from the Democrats seems to be the impression that Clinton and his party have not accomplished much in the 20 months he has been President. Clinton and his aides have labored to reverse that perception by a constant repetition of Clinton’s accomplishments, but so far their effort have not changed the perception.


For example, asked about Clinton’s promise to reduce the budget deficit by half before the end of his term, only 16% of those polled said he has made either a “great deal” or a “good amount” of progress, while 47% said he has made “not too much” progress and 32% said he has made none at all.

In fact, the deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 is now estimated at about $220 billion, compared with a projection of $305 billion before Clinton took office. Next year’s deficit is estimated at $167 billion, compared with a projected $302 billion. In Bush’s last year as President, the deficit hit a record $290 billion.

Similarly, Clinton has trimmed 75,000 workers from the federal civilian payroll of about 2.1 million and is on track to reduce federal employment by a total of 275,000 during the next several years. But only 22% of those polled said he has made progress toward his promise to “reduce the size of the federal work force,” while 23% said he has made no progress and 47% said he has not made too much progress.

Clinton has won congressional passage of a scaled-down version of his national service program, which puts young people to work on public service programs in return for help in paying for college. The program will enroll 20,000 young people by the end of the year, but in this area only 21% said Clinton has made much progress toward creating such a program while 54% said he has made no progress or not much.

Finally, the crime bill that Congress passed in August contains funds to help local governments hire additional police officers. Clinton has promised to increase the number of police by 100,000 officers. Critics have said the bill will fund a somewhat smaller number. Of those polled, 19% said Clinton has made no progress toward the goal, 38% said he has not made much progress and only 36% said he has made a great deal or a good amount of progress.

Asked separately to assess whether Clinton has made good proposals that Republicans have blocked or bad proposals that should have been blocked, 35% credited Clinton with having put forward good policies while 17% said his plans were bad and Republicans were right to block them. A plurality, 41%, said that neither Clinton nor the Republicans have proposed much worthwhile.


Unfortunately for Clinton, those who take that “plague on both houses” view said by a 55%-24% margin that they plan to vote Republican this year.

Treading Party Lines

Asked of Registered Voters

If the November 1994, elections for Congress were being held today, which party would you like to see win in your district:

Democrats: 40%

Republicans: 45%

Some other party: 3%

Neither: 5%

Don’t know: 7%

Asked of Everyone

Which of the following statements comes closet to the way you feel:

Clinton has proposed good policies and got them through: 7%

Clinton proposed good policies; GOP wrongfully blocked them: 28%

Clinton proposed bad policies; GOP rightfully blocked them: 17%

Neither Clinton nor GOP have done much worthwhile: 41%

Don’t know: 7%

When it comes to the country’s economic direction, would you rather:

Stick with Clinton programs: 46%

Return to Reagan programs: 35%

Neither: 9%

Other: 1%

Don’t know: 9%

Do you favor or oppose the proposed world trade agreement?

Favor: 27%

Oppose: 13%

Don’t know: 60%

Do you think the United States has adequate military strength to deal with all potential international crises?

Adequate: 44%

More than enough: 25%

Inadequate: 28%

Don’t know: 3%


The Times Poll interviewed 1,272 adults nationwide, by telephone, Oct. 17 through 19. Included in the sample are 1,016 registered voters. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for the total sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for the registered voter sample it is plus or minus 4 points. For certain sub-groups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.