Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Donkey’s Startin’ to Kick Again

[[P O L L S]] * It would be foolhardy in the extreme for Democrats to think that George W. Bush’s bungling in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, combined with escalating gas prices and souring opinions on the Iraq war--all of which threaten to drown his poll ratings in the crapper--automatically clear their party’s path to a resurgence in 2006. Dems still have to deliver clear, decisive, and innovative strategies for the nation’s economic recovery as well as a step-by-step (and face-saving) route out of the Iraq quagmire, which they’re not yet doing. However, the latest study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press certainly offers Dems some encouraging signs--including a finding that 52 percent of Americans now say they’d vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress in their district, while only 40 percent say they’d pull the level for a Republican.

Pew’s analysis shows voters lining up strongly behind the Democratic Party when it comes to reforming the health care system and protecting the environment, both traditionally strong categories for America’s oldest political organization. Pluralities also support Dems when it comes to dealing with energy problems, education, and Social Security (this despite Bush having made Social Security “reform” the top priority for his second term). And Democrats again have an advantage, though a slightly smaller one, on the issues of Iraq and handling the economy. In Katrina’s aftermath, 40 percent of Americans place their trust in Democrats to manage major disasters, while just 34 percent favor Republicans. Only in one area--terrorism--does the Republican Party still lead, 45 percent to 34 percent. “But even here,” Pew reports, “the GOP’s edge has narrowed significantly as the Democrats have made gains.” In the run-up to the 2002 midterm elections, Republicans held a 44 percent to 22 percent edge on the issue of terrorism.

What accounts for these gains? Pew points to the self-described independents, “who decidedly favor the Democratic Party’s leadership across nearly all issues.” For instance, among voters not affiliated with either major party, Dems lead 48 percent to 27 percent on education, 44 percent to 29 percent on Social Security, 43 percent to 32 percent on the economy, and 45 percent to 31 percent on Iraq. And there’s no contest when it comes to health care and the environment, with independents putting greater trust in Democrats over Republicans “by margins of roughly three-to-one.” Democrats can also count on the backing of independents in next year’s midterms. While partisans on both sides signal their intent to stick with their party’s nominees (the only wavering being voiced by moderate-to-liberal Republicans), independent voters are currently jumping on the Democratic bandwagon by a 55 percent to 27 percent margin. This disparity might be traceable to the pessimistic viewpoint among independents when it comes to U.S. economic strength. Last January, only 17 percent of independents saw tough times ahead for the economy; today, 42 percent say the same thing--a 25-point increase.

The bad news here, though, is that Democrats are clearly unsatisfied with their representation on Capitol Hill. Dems and Republicans both hand their leaders in Congress a 36 percent job approval rating overall; but while 72 percent of Republicans give thumbs up to the way their congressional officials are doing their jobs, only 49 percent of Democrats endorse their own leadership’s performance, down from 64 percent in May. Much of this falloff is likely due to widespread displeasure among Democrats over the way their elected representatives have dealt with Bush; generally, it seems Dems want their opposition party to be more oppositional. Meanwhile, independents pretty much disapprove of congressional leaders from both camps.

Pew’s study, by the way, isn’t the only one to find Democrats with a decided advantage in the lead-up to next year’s midterm elections. The latest Newsweek poll discovered that 50 percent of respondents were planning to vote for the Democratic candidate in their district, while only 38 percent expected to mark their ballots for the Republican. The same survey found 66 percent of Americans expressing dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the United States, while a record low 28 percent said they were satisfied.

Of course, there are still 14 months left before Americans head for their voting booths again to change or retain the balance of power in Washington, D.C. In politics, that’s a heck of a long time, and anything can happen between now and then.

READ MORE:Poker Party,” by David Mamet (Los Angeles Times); “What Women Want,” by Page Rockwell (Salon).

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