WASHINGTON – 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 near tie between the Republican and Democratic parties when voters were asked which party’s candidates they would favor in November.
Yet 76 percent 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 percent of those surveyed calling it their primary issue and 16 percent 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 percent of those surveyed. Still, 72 percent of those surveyed said they were extremely or very concerned about the federal government’s level of spending and debt.
Health care reform ranked third but was a primary issue among only 11 percent. With a slight majority of those surveyed saying that they opposed the health care legislation that President Barack Obama signed into law last month, few believed that it would benefit their families.
“Ultimately, health care is not going to be a major part of the vote decision at the end of the cycle,” Goeas said Wednesday. “I think it is going to be driven much more by the economy.”
The challenge for Democratic congressional candidates, according to Lake, will be convincing voters that they have plans for creating new jobs. They should leave the job of convincing the American public of benefits from the health care law to Obama and members of his Cabinet, the Democratic pollster suggests.
Yet the public’s divide on the health care 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 senior voters gave Republican Sen. John McCain 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.”
Republicans face their own challenges this year. Nearly two-thirds of the Republican voters surveyed held a favorable view of the tea party movement, 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.
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 percent to 41 percent. But they voiced more confidence in Republicans in Congress in “controlling wasteful spending,” 44 percent to 32 percent.
In the generic question of which party’s congressional candidates voters would be most likely to support in November, Republicans drew 42 percent of those surveyed and Democrats 40 percent, a statistical tie.