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Parsing the Polls: 2006 -- A Bush Referendum?

It's no secret that many Republicans running for office in 2006 have been making themselves scarce when President George W. Bush comes through their states. Given the president's dismal job-approval numbers, that strategy probably makes good political sense.

But slipping that political anchor may not be so easy for Republicans. The biggest question being mulled by GOP strategists at the moment is whether disaffected Democrats and independents will turn out in droves this November to express their unhappiness with the president. And, if they do, can Republicans find a way to motivate their base to turn out as well?

A few surveys released in the last 10 days provide some answers to that question. Let's parse the polls:

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics asked whether voters were more likely to back a candidate who supports Bush or one who opposes him. Twenty percent said they would be more inclined to support a pro-Bush politician while 38 percent said they would favor a candidate who opposed the president. Thirty-nine percent said how a candidate felt toward the president would not affect their vote.

Looking inside this survey's numbers, nearly two-in-three Democrats tested (63 percent) said they would prefer a candidate who opposed Bush while less than one in three (31 percent) said a candidate's support for Bush would make no difference. One-in-three independents said they would be more inclined to support an anti-Bush candidate (37 percent) while just 13 percent said a candidate who backed Bush would be more likely to win their vote. Roughly half of all Republicans (44 percent) said they were more likely to back a candidate who backs Bush; 42 percent said it was not an issue.

The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll posed a similar question, asking whether 2006 will be a vote to show support for or opposition to the president and his policies. Twelve percent said their vote would be aimed at sending a message of support to Bush while 30 percent said it would be to express their opposition. Roughly 60 percent said it wouldn't be a factor.

Thanks to the Washington Post polling unit of Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, we can match those figures up against a historical backdrop.

Two days before the 2002 election, 29 percent of those tested said they were voting to express support for Bush while just 15 percent said their vote was to send a message of opposition. The 2002 midterms saw Republicans defy historical patterns and make gains in the House and the Senate (unusual, since the party controlling the White House typically loses seats in a midterm election). These gains were seen as an affirmation of President Bush's leadership in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Four years earlier as Republicans sought to nationalize the election around President Clinton's personal foibles, the Post-ABC survey showed that strategy was destined to come up short. On Nov. 1, 1998, a whopping 77 percent of voters said Clinton was not a factor in how they would vote in the midterms. Of those who did factor Clinton in, 13 percent said they would cast a vote to express support for Clinton while 9 percent said their vote would be to express opposition.

What do the polls tell us about 2006? First, there is a distinct possibility that this midterm will be the mirror image of 2002 -- a sort of reverse referendum on the Bush presidency.

Remember that in midterm elections the most important (and unpredictable) element is whether one side performs better in turning out its most committed voters on Election Day. In 2002, Republicans enjoyed a wind at their backs as the most loyal backers of Bush were extremely motivated to make their voices heard, while the president's opponents were considerably less energized. Four years later, Democrats are likely to benefit from a base that will brave any conditions to ensure the president knows they are not happy with the direction he and the Republican Party have taken the country.

There is still plenty of time before voters head to the ballot box, but polling currently shows ominous clouds on the horizon for Republicans.

For further reading: The Post's Charles Babington wrote recently about how an energy disparity between the two parties' bases could define the 2006 election.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 24, 2006; 7:25 AM ET
Categories:  Governors , House , Parsing the Polls , Senate  
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