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THE TIMES POLL

Public's Mood on Priorities Changes

Politics: The war on terror is losing ground to economic woes, which could benefit Democrats in congressional races. Bush's ratings remain generally strong.

September 01, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rising anxiety about the nation's direction and continued uncertainty about the economy appear to be strengthening the Democrats' position in the battle for control of Congress, a Times Poll has found.

But with President Bush still enjoying high approval ratings and nearly three-fifths of Americans indicating they are inclined to reelect their member of Congress, the poll points toward another closely fought election between two parties that finished the 2000 campaign in a virtual dead heat.

Against that backdrop of broad partisan parity, the poll finds some shifts in the landscape that could help Democrats. In the survey, the share of Americans dissatisfied with the country's overall direction increased sharply from earlier this year; that's usually a warning sign for the party holding the White House.

At the same time, more people now pick Democrats than Republicans when asked which party can best handle the most important problem facing the country, and which party they intend to support in November's congressional elections.

The key to the Democratic rise may be an underlying shift in the public's focus: More than twice as many Americans now say the economy, rather than the war on terrorism, will be the most important issue in determining their vote for Congress. And Democrats have opened a 44% to 38% advantage on the critical measure of which party can do a better job of handling the economy.

"It seems to me every time the country has been in a bad way economically, a Democratic administration has had to come in and bring the country out of it. I see the old pattern going on again," said Orville Ives, a retired utility contractor in Port Charlotte, Fla., who responded to the poll.

None of this guarantees that the Democrats will gain in November. The broad national measure of voter preference in congressional elections, for instance, has not always been a precise predictor of the outcome of individual House races.

And Bush's popularity could still be an important asset for GOP candidates: 37% of those polled say they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who would help Bush implement his agenda, compared with 17% who say they would be less likely (42% said it won't affect their vote).

"I think the way Bush has handled things has been just fine," said Cindy Cavitt, a traveling photographer from Coachella, Calif. "I'm usually more inclined to vote Republican ... and I don't see any real reason to change."

The Times Poll, supervised by director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,372 adults nationwide from Aug. 22 to 25. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

In November's elections, voters will select all 435 House members as well as senators in 34 states and governors in 36. The election will determine control of the House, where the GOP has a six-seat edge, and the Senate, which the Democrats command by a single seat.

The poll suggests that the campaign will be fought out against a backdrop of resurfacing political divisions and sustained ambivalence about the economy.

From several angles, the poll finds the wave of unity that washed away partisan differences after last September's terrorist attacks is receding. Indeed, the new survey finds the nation reverting to the polarized assessments about Bush's presidency evident before Sept. 11.

Bush continues to receive strong marks in many areas. Two-thirds say they approve of his overall job performance, and he receives good grades on handling the terrorist threat (74%), foreign policy (61%), the economy (56%) and even corporate fraud (55%). Only for his handling of the federal budget, which has fallen back into deficit after four years of surpluses, does the president fall below majority support, with 48%.

Yet Bush's scores on those measures are down from the stratospheric heights he reached in a Times Poll in February; at that point, his overall approval rating hit 80%. And old divides are reemerging.

Among voters who consider themselves Republicans, Bush's support has hardly declined at all: an impressive 93% of GOP partisans still approve of his job performance.

"Overall, he's doing a good job," said Republican Edward Brog, a retired teacher in Elmwood, Ill. "As I listen to the national news broadcasts and read the newspaper, the thing that impresses me most about the criticism ... is that it seems to be more politically motivated than because there is real substance to the objection."

Among independents, Bush's approval ratings have slipped since February, but only modestly--from 81% to 71%. "Given how he started, with the questionable election, it's fortuitous for him, in a strange way, that he had an event [Sept. 11] that he could show his strengths," said Carol Kleiner, an independent in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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