WASHINGTON – President Bush has hit new lows in public opinion for his handling of Iraq and the war on terror and for his overall job performance. Polling also shows the Republican Party surrendering its advantage on national security.
The AP-Ipsos survey is loaded with grim election-year news for a party struggling to stay in power. Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction – the largest percentage during the Bush presidency and up 13 points from a year ago.
“These numbers are scary. We’ve lost every advantage we’ve ever had,” GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said. “The good news is Democrats don’t have much of a plan. The bad news is they may not need one.”
Democratic leaders predicted they will seize control of one or both chambers of Congress in November. Republicans said they feared the worst unless the political landscape quickly changes.
There is more at stake than the careers of GOP lawmakers. A Democratic-led Congress could bury the last vestiges of Bush’s legislative agenda and subject the administration to high-profile investigations of the Iraq war, the CIA leak case, warrantless eavesdropping and other matters.
In the past two congressional elections, Republicans gained seats on the strength of Bush’s popularity and a perception among voters that the GOP was stronger on national security than Democrats.
Those advantages are gone, according to a survey of 1,003 adults conducted this week for the Associated Press by Ipsos, an international polling firm.
On an issue the GOP has dominated for decades, Republicans are now locked in a tie with Democrats – 41 percent each – on the question of which party people trust to protect the country. Democrats made their biggest national security gains among young men, according to the AP-Ipsos poll, which had a 3 percentage point margin of error.
The public gives Democrats a slight edge on what party would best handle Iraq, a reversal from Election Day 2004.
As for Bush’s ratings:
–Just 36 percent of the public approves of his job performance, his lowest-ever rating in AP-Ipsos polling. By contrast, the president’s job approval rating was 47 percent among likely voters just before Election Day 2004 and a whopping 64 percent among registered voters in October 2002.
Only 40 percent of the public approves of Bush’s performance on foreign policy and the war on terror, another low-water mark for his presidency. That’s down 9 points from a year ago. Just before the 2002 election, 64 percent of registered voters backed Bush on terror and foreign policy.
Just 35 percent of the public approves of Bush’s handling of Iraq, his lowest in AP-Ipsos polling.
“He’s in over his head,” said Diane Heller, 65, a Pleasant Valley, N.Y., real estate broker and independent voter.
Some past presidents’ job approval ratings have dropped lower than Bush’s. Harry Truman in 1952, Richard Nixon in 1974, Jimmy Carter in 1979 and the first George Bush in 1992 saw their ratings fall to the mid- to high 20s, according to Gallup polling.
Many have sunk as low as this president. Bill Clinton was at 39 percent in the late summer of 1994 – before midterm elections that were disastrous for Democrats. Ronald Reagan was at 35 percent in January 1983 before rebuilding his support. Lyndon Johnson was at 36 percent in March 1968, just before announcing he would not run for re-election during the Vietnam War.
As bad as Bush’s numbers may be, Congress’ are worse.
Just 30 percent of the public approves of the GOP-led Congress’ job performance, and Republicans seem to be shouldering the blame.
By a 49-33 margin, the public favors Democrats over Republicans when asked which party should control Congress.
That 16-point Democratic advantage is the largest the party has enjoyed in AP-Ipsos polling.
“I think we will win the Congress,” Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said, breaking the unwritten rule against raising expectations.
Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., head of the House Republican campaign committee, said Bush’s woes won’t hurt GOP candidates.
“When we get to the ballot this year, there’s not going to be President Bush on the ballot, and there’s not going to be in my view, ‘Do you want to vote with the Republicans or Democrats?’ It’s going to be, ‘How do you feel about your member of Congress?’ And if our members are doing their work and our candidates are connecting with the issues of those districts, they’re going to do fine,” Reynolds said.
Democrats need to gain 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate for control, no easy task in the best of circumstances.
The Democratic strategy is to nationalize the elections around a throw-the-bums-out theme keyed to a burgeoning ethics scandal focused on relationships between GOP lobbyists and lawmakers.
Democrats also need hordes of GOP voters to stay home on Election Day out of frustration. Nobody can predict whether that will happen, but a growing number of Republicans disagree with their leaders in Washington about immigration, federal spending and other issues.
Bush’s approval rating is down 12 points among Republicans since a year ago. Six in 10 Republicans said they disapproved of the GOP-led Congress.