Poll: GOP, Democrats in tie as midterm elections near and voters focus on jobs

The state of the economy likely will outweigh any other issue on the minds of voters in midterm congressional elections, which offer Republicans a significant opportunity to add to their numbers in Congress, a new bipartisan poll shows.

The Battleground Poll, released Wednesday, shows a virtual tie between the Republican and Democratic parties when voters were asked which party’s candidates they would favor in November.

Yet 76% of the Republicans questioned in the poll, sponsored by George Washington University, said they were extremely likely to vote in November. That surpassed the number of likely Democratic voters by 14 percentage points. That level of intensity among Republicans surpasses what was measured in 1994, when the GOP took control of the House.

The economy and jobs stand out as the main issues that voters want Congress to work on, with 39% of those surveyed calling it their primary issue and 16% their secondary issue.

“It is still jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Celinda Lake, of Lake Research, the Democratic pollster on the Battleground Poll’s team. “It is really the prism though which everything else is seen.”

Yet “spending is lying right under the surface as a key issue,” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas, of the Tarrance Group.

Government spending ranked second as a leading concern in a poll of likely voters conducted earlier this month, but it was a top issue among only 13% of those surveyed. Still, 72% of those surveyed said they were extremely or very concerned about the federal government’s level of spending and debt.

Healthcare reform ranked third but was a primary issue among only 11%. With a slight majority of those surveyed saying that they opposed the healthcare legislation that President Obama signed into law last month, few believed that it would benefit their families.

“Ultimately, healthcare is not going to be a major part of the vote decision at the end of the cycle,” Goeas said at a breakfast for reporters Wednesday morning sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “I think it is going to be driven much more by the economy and where is the economy -- and the concern that is there for spending.”

The challenge for Democratic congressional candidates, according to Lake, will be convincing voters that they are doing something or have plans for creating new jobs. They should leave the job of convincing the American public of benefits from the healthcare law to Obama and members of his Cabinet, the Democratic pollster suggests.

“It’s beyond the ability of [congressional] candidates to sell the healthcare plan,” Lake said. “In terms of healthcare reform, I hope the administration will understand how important it is for them to continue a mantra of selling the plan.”

Yet the public’s divide on the healthcare legislation underscores another potential problem for the Democrats: Senior citizens surveyed in the Battleground Poll favored Republican candidates by a margin of 15 percentage points, significantly greater than the edge that senior voters gave Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the 2008 presidential election. Older voters perceived that they were hurt by the financial market’s collapse and had little time to repair the damage.

“What most people don’t understand is that six of the seven points which Obama won the election by was the shift of voters under 35 from where they had been in 2004,” Goeas said. “This was an election that was overwhelmingly driven by the youth vote.”

The shift of senior voters toward Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm elections and the relative lack of intensity among Democratic voters in general this year bode well for the GOP, Goeas noted. And, as Lake sees it, it poses a challenge for Democrats.

“We are losing them now by 15 points,” Lake said. “We can’t afford that kind of loss.”

Nevertheless, Lake suggests, Republicans face their own challenges this year. Nearly two-thirds of the Republican voters surveyed held a favorable view of the “tea party,” a more favorable view than they held of their own party in Congress.

“That is a substantial challenge for Republicans. . . . It can be divisive in their primaries,” Lake said. “Our biggest hope is for a number of third-party candidates” who might split the vote.

Although the tea party movement’s activists are “leaderless” and divided in how radical they are in their approach toward incumbents, Goeas notes that voters sympathetic to the movement are deeply concerned about government spending. “Whichever party ties into that mood is going to be successful,” he said.

Both agree that there is a relatively narrow window between now and the November elections in which Democrats can avert significant erosion in their control of both houses of Congress.

The president attempted to turn the focus of his agenda toward the economy in the State of the Union address, the Republican pollster noted. “Unfortunately for Democrats, they had to spend the next two months talking about healthcare,” Goeas said.

“I think there was a calculation on the part of the Democrats in the House and the Senate that passing healthcare reform would undo the big problem -- kind of the big elephant in this election -- which is the lopsided intensity” of Republican and Democratic voters this year, Goeas said. “The question is how long” will the Republican fervor be there. “Will it last? My sense is that it will.”

The roughly even divide between support for Republicans and Democrats in the midterm elections “represents a crossroads,” Lake said. “There are challenges in here very much for both parties.”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, retirement and Social Security, illegal immigration, taxes, terrorism and reforming Wall Street trailed as leading issues, in that order, with each ranked No. 1 by less than one in 10 of those surveyed in the Battleground Poll.

Those surveyed still placed confidence in congressional Democrats “turning the economy around,” by a margin of 47% to 41%. But they voiced more confidence in Republicans in Congress in “controlling wasteful spending,” 44% to 32%.

A slight majority, 52%, said they opposed the healthcare legislation that Obama signed. Forty-four percent said they supported it. [For the record: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said 44% said they opposed it.]

Thirty-four percent of the likely voters surveyed believed their families would benefit from the healthcare provisions contained in the legislation; 58% said their families would not benefit.

Democrats have a better public image on the question of “getting things done,” by a margin of 41% to 32% in the survey. But only 36% of those surveyed said the country was headed in the right direction, with 55% saying the nation was on the wrong track.

More than two-thirds of the likely voters surveyed, 68%, voiced disapproval for the job that Congress was doing. This sentiment was strongest among Republicans -- 92% voicing disapproval -- and among independent voters, with 70% voicing disapproval.

Forty-nine percent of those surveyed voiced approval for the job Obama was doing - a number similar to findings of the Gallup Poll and CNN and Opinion Research Corp. this week.

Yet Obama remains personally popular in the Battleground Poll, with 69% offering a positive opinion of him as a person.

In the generic question of which party’s congressional candidates voters would be most likely to support in November, Republicans drew 42% of those surveyed and Democrats 40%, a statistical tie.

The survey of 1,000 registered, likely voters conducted April 5-8 by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research for George Washington University carrieed a possible margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.