Introduction and Summary

A nationwide Pew Research Center survey finds voting intentions shifting significantly in favor of Democratic congressional candidates going into the final days of the 1998 midterm election campaign. For the first time this fall, the new survey shows likely voters equally divided between the two parties.1 In three previous surveys since late August, generic support for GOP candidates was consistently greater than that for Democrats.

The general increase in support for Democrats coincides with a similar increase in President Clinton’s approval ratings, now at 65%. In the latest survey, likely voters are split between Democratic and Republican candidates 46%-44%, a significant change since mid-October when the GOP had a 48%-43% edge. Conducted October 28-31, the new survey of 1,714 registered voters (743 likely voters) began the same day that nationwide reports broke of a Republican advertising campaign drawing attention to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

The survey suggests that the judgment of undecided voters may be crucial to the outcome of many congressional races this year. Nearly one-in-five voters now only lean to a candidate or are flatly undecided, and the race is still even among likely voters who are committed to a choice at this time. The uncertainty of the election outcome is further underscored by two factors:

First, throughout the fall, the campaign has attracted less voter attention than it did in 1994, suggesting that voters may conclusively make up their minds later than they did four years ago or choose not to vote.

Secondly, the chances for reversal or acceleration of a trend is greatest when a shift occurs late in a campaign, as it apparently has this year.

Democrats have made gains since mid-October among many voter groups, but the change in their favor is most evident among non-whites, older voters and those on the East and West coasts. Voter interest is higher on both coasts than it was in mid-October.

As in previous Pew surveys this fall, voter turnout seems likely to be lower than four years ago. However, the survey indicates that compared to 1994, participation will be relatively greater among core Republicans and Democrats and lower among independent voters.

The percentage of people saying their vote for Congress will be a vote against Clinton slipped slightly to 17% from 23% in mid-October. At the same time, the percentage of voters with an unfavorable view of members who voted for congressional impeachment inquiry rose slightly to 54% from 49%.

As the President’s job approval rating has climbed, so has disapproval of GOP congressional leaders. Both of these factors are closely tied to generic support for congressional candidates of the respective parties. The survey finds increased support for reelection of incumbents compared to mid-October, but the view that most members deserve reelection remains significantly below what it was earlier in the year. However, voters express more satisfaction with incumbents — both their own and generally — than they did four years ago.

Education is the top issue for voters this year: 88% rank it as very important to the nation. The debate over how to use the budget surplus and efforts to ease the global economic crisis follow, with 76% ranking each as very important. Regulating health maintenance organizations is next at 68%. Majorities in both parties rank each of these issues as very important.

At the very bottom of the list is the investigation into the relationship between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky: Just 18% of registered voters say the issue is very important. The congressional debate over impeachment is deemed more significant, with 35% saying it is very important to the nation. Supporters of Republican candidates are far more likely to say these issues are important than are either backers of Democrats or undecided voters.