Introduction and Summary

In the wake of the congressional elections earlier this month, President Clinton’s job approval ratings inched upward, sentiment for impeachment remained low, and by almost a two-to-one margin Americans said that Clinton — not the Republican leaders in Congress — should now take the lead in solving the nation’s problems. This is a stark turnaround from four years ago, when Clinton’s popularity hit rock bottom and the public narrowly preferred Republican congressional leaders take the lead on the issues.

This upbeat picture for Clinton fits public satisfaction with the very closely watched results of the 1998 elections, which saw Democrats pick up five seats in the House of Representatives. Overall, 42% of Americans paid very close attention to the results — making it one of the top Washington political stories of the year and comparable even to the historic 1994 elections, when Republicans wrested control of the House from the Democrats for the first time in 40 years. Moreover, 79% of Americans describe themselves as satisfied with the outcome, a step up from the 70% who felt this way in 1994.

In assessing the elections and President Clinton, Democrats today are overwhelmingly united, notably more so than Republicans. More than 90% of Democrats say they are happy their party picked up seats in the House, compared to 76% of Republicans who are pleased their party retained power there. Fully 70% of Americans do not want Clinton impeached, including 92% of Democrats and 44% of Republicans. More broadly, Clinton’s job approval is 65%: 89% among Democrats; 37% among Republicans. These are the principal findings of a Pew Research Center telephone survey of 1,005 adults conducted Nov. 6-10. The survey has a margin of error of +/-3.5%.

When it comes to solving the nation’s problems, 49% of Americans want Clinton out in front. Among Democrats, 77% say the President should take the lead, compared to 9% who say GOP congressional leaders. Republicans are more divided: 21% say Clinton should take the lead, just 50% say GOP leaders.

In the survey, which began on the night of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s sudden retirement announcement and continued for four days afterward, Republican congressional leaders suffered a drop in approval compared to last summer. Today, 41% of Americans approve of the GOP leaders’ job performance, down 7 percentage points from a peak in late August. Just 29% of the public trusts the Republicans to make the right decision on impeachment, compared to 44% who trust the Democrats. Again, Democrats have more faith in their party than Republicans do in theirs (79% vs. 63%).

More Americans are happy the Democrats gained seats in the House than are happy the Republicans kept control (56% vs. 47%). Republicans were almost as satisfied as Democrats with the outcome of the elections (75% vs. 81%).

Very few GOP voters were motivated by a desire to curtail Clinton’s authority. Only one-in-ten say their vote for a Republican was a vote to try to control President Clinton’s power. Two years ago, twice as many people (22%) cast anti-Clinton votes. Those who voted Democratic are more likely to say theirs was a vote to control the Republicans’ power (24%). Nonetheless, most Republican and Democratic voters say they were voting more for the candidate personally than for or against either political party (62% and 51%, respectively).