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Parsing the Polls: Glass Is Half Full (and Empty) for Congressional Dems

Welcome to the latest edition of "Parsing the Polls," The Fix's weekly look at some of the newest and most interesting political survey research.

With the leadership vacuum resulting from Rep. Tom DeLay's (R-Texas) permanent withdrawal as House majority leader, we thought it might be interesting to see how the voting public feels about Congress in this time of turmoil.

Put simply: Americans don't like or trust Congress. Three national polls taken since the first of the year show Congress with a large net negative job approval rating ranging from 30 points in a CBS poll to 14 in the latest Post/ABC survey. These numbers are fundamentally unchanged from similar polls taken late last year.

So what does the discontent with Congress means in purely electoral terms? Is it a "pox on both your houses" in the eyes of voters, or will the negative feelings mainly hurt Republicans at the ballot box this fall because they control the House and Senate?

The answer to that question varies widely depending on whom you ask.

Ask Anna Greenberg, a pollster with the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, and she will tell you that "even though voters think both parties are corrupt, every single poll consistently shows Democrats with a five to  eight point advantage" on corruption issues. (The Fix addressed the polling on congressional corruption in last week's "Parsing the Polls.")

"Corruption generally only works [against] the party in power," said Greenberg. She added that in a recent poll conducted by her firm, roughly 80 percent of people knew -- without prompting or having options offered to them -- that Republicans control Congress.

But if you ask Republican pollster Neil Newhouse -- a partner in Public Opinion Strategies --  he'll point out that that there is no empirical data to suggest that the public is differentiating between Democrats and Republicans when offering their views on Congress. "It's both parties that are suffering under the weight of Congress's high disapproval scores," Newhouse said.

As evidence of the bipartisan disdain with which voters hold Congress, Newhouse noted a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll that included a question asking voters to compare the policies being proposed by GOP congressional leaders to those of Democratic leaders and judge whether they would "move the country in the right direction or the wrong direction."

Forty percent said the policies advocated by the Republican leadership in the House and Senate was moving America in the right direction compared to 50 percent who said those policies were moving the nation in the wrong direction.  The Democratic numbers were better, though not by much -- 44 percent said the party's policies were moving things in the right direction compared to 43 percent who said Democratic policies would send the country in the wrong direction.

Looking at those numbers, Newhouse concluded they represent "a warning sign for ALL incumbent members of Congress, regardless of party."

What do you think of these numbers?  Post your thoughts in the comments section below.

Georgia Governor's Race

For those Fix readers keeping close track of gubernatorial races, make sure to check out a recent survey conducted by Zogby International for the Atlanta Journal Constitution that shows Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) with strong leads over Secretary of State Cathy Cox (D) and Lt. Gov. Mark " The Big Guy" Taylor (D).  Perdue holds a 53 percent to 37 percent lead over Cox and a wider 56 percent to 31 percent margin over Taylor.  Those numbers don't bode well for Democrats, who saw Perdue as a major target of opportunity.

One interesting side note in the AJC poll is that Ralph Reed (R), who is running for lieutenant governor, appears to be struggling to grab onto Perdue's coattails. Reed, whose name repeatedly pops up in connection with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, was thought of favorably by 23 percent compared to 19 percent who viewed him unfavorably -- not an ideal starting point for a candidacy.  In addition, Reed was losing to a generic Democratic candidate 36 percent to 33 percent.

California 50

Out west in California, Democrats looking for an upset in the 50th District special election got a boost Tuesday with the release of a poll showing that their candidate -- 2004 nominee Francine Busby  -- is far better known than her potential Republican opponents and is thought of very favorably by voters in the San Diego-area district.  The poll, done by Datamar Inc., found that 80 percent of voters recognized Busby's name, with 56 percent thinking favorably of her compared to just five percent with an unfavorable opinion.

The three best known Republicans -- state Sen. Bill Morrow, former Rep. Brian Bilbray and former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian -- are the three favorites for the nomination. Bilbray, who represented the old 49th district from 1994 to 2000, was recognized by 79 percent of the sample, although just 29 percent (20 favorable/9 unfavorable) offered an opinion. Morrow had a nearly five-to-one favorable/unfavorable ratio and was recognized by 69 percent of respondents. Kaloogian, a controversial former member of the state Assembly, had a 15 percent favorable rating and an 8 percent unfavorable score. (Click here for the Democratic results and here for the Republican ratings.) 

It makes sense that Busby is the best known of all the potential candidates given her 2004 race and the publicity surrounding former Rep. Duke Cunningham's (R) resignation, and her strong numbers argue that she will be competitive in the April 11 all-party primary. But any Democrat faces a tough challenge in winning this district.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 11, 2006; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  House , Parsing the Polls  
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Next: House GOP to Vote Sooner on DeLay Successor?


Your analysis of the poll in the 50th CD of California is incorrect. The results for Busby are among likely Democratic primary voters and the results for the Republicans are among likely Republican primary voters. All this poll shows is that Busby is very popular with Democratic primary voters -- not a surprising finding at all. As much as I'd like a Dem to win that seat, she isn't a great candidate and only got about 36% of the vote in the last election. Plus the district favors Republicans.

Posted by: Former Dem Pollster | January 11, 2006 5:07 PM | Report abuse

re: Parsing the Polls With the polls showing the Dems ahead 5 - 13 points control of the Congress would shift in November if we voted by party but voting by gerrymandered district I see the Dems picking up 5-10 seats - if things really break their way they could wind up in the worst of all worlds picking up 3 or 4 more seats winding up with a 1-2 seat majority effectively making every Democrat in the House an independent operator.

In the Senate it appears to be a 5 seat pick up for Dems making it a tie with the VP having to vacate his hideaway and be there for every vote. Every Senator would be even more of an independent operator than ever before.

In other words a stalemated Congress which may not be a bad deal since they, at leasy, "would do no harm".

Posted by: Peter L. | January 11, 2006 2:03 PM | Report abuse

As Mark Twain said, there is only one criminal class in America and it's Congress. Other than that astute observation, how about, when poll results are posted, including the questions asked, word for word. Poll results are really meaningless without the exact questions which elicited them. Rather like being given half of an equation, which is no equation.

Posted by: felicity smith | January 11, 2006 1:56 PM | Report abuse

People always forget that ALL politics is local. When I see my congressman sitting back and letting Delay et al do all this crap without so much as a whimper, then I get mad. Just because someone is in your party should not give them a free pass to criticism. So you can bet I am watching what my Senator and Representative is saying about this mess. I will hold him accountable.

Posted by: jenniferm | January 11, 2006 11:06 AM | Report abuse


Both Tarheel Guy and Elrod are correct, but there is an additional point that the media missed in reporting on that Gallup poll yesterday. Yes, 50 percent said the GOP leadership was pursuing policies that were moving the country in the wrong direction, and the Democrats had a very small advantage on the same question.

But this poll's sample actually had more Republicans in it than Democrats, when other polls, even polls by Gallup over the last several weeks, have had a more traditional Democratic advantage in its sample. So when evaluating these numbers, people shouldn't assume that both parties are deep in the mud here if a GOP-tilted sample still gives the Democrats a very slight advantage while penalizing their own leaders to the tune of 6 points.

Yes, it is early, and the Democratic leadership will allow the steady drip of bad news and possible indictments of GOP members and staffers to do their sales job for them heading into November 2006 before rolling out their own reform agenda this fall. But I also think it is premature for anyone to make a conclusion that the corruption cases will hurt both parties equally.

Posted by: Steve Soto | January 11, 2006 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Just look at similar numbers for 1994. Back then voters thought both parties stunk. More important, the number of voters who think that Congressmen in general should be thrown out of office is 40% right now, higher than it's been since May 1994. Until the Contract with America came out in September 1994, the mantra coming from the GOP that year was all anti-Washington, anti-Congress and anti-Democrat. Only late in the game did Republicans offer a positive alternative. But what really helped the GOP was Gingrich deciding to go to the mattresses and leave out moderates and bi-partisanists like Bob Michel high and dry. Gingrich insisted that Washington scandal was unacceptable, even if some Republicans were involved in, say, the House bank scandal. Throw all the bums out and start over, Ginrich insisted. And it caught on like wildfire in the middle of 1994. If the GOP puts DeLay-protege Blunt in charge, the Dems will have a perfect opportunity to hammer the Republicans for not taking lobbying reform seriously.

Posted by: Elrod | January 11, 2006 10:20 AM | Report abuse

It is way too early to be looking at polls regarding how people might vote in November. However from a tactical perspective who is in better shape - the Republicans who are in charge of both houses of Congress and the White House and now must also own this scandal that has yet to achieve a full rolling boil, or the Democrats who control nothing?

Republicans are spinning hard, claiming (incorrectly) that Abramoff was an equal opportunity giver and throwing out such irrelevant Democratic "scandals" as William Jefferson and Frank Ballance (and the House banking scandal for crying out loud - talk about a golden oldie). Voters are not likely to buy a message that Democrats are entirely the party of civic virtue, nor will they buy the Republican line that "they're just as bad as us," unless the Democrats let them (could happen, I know). The slow drip of news is all in the Democrats favor, as the Abramoff (and soon the Delay) trial moves ahead, people will see many (many, many) Republican names being brought out. I can not imagine how the GOP can wriggle out of this, but it will be entertaining watching them try.

Posted by: Tarheel Guy | January 11, 2006 8:42 AM | Report abuse

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