Summary of Findings

Nine months before the midterm elections, the Democrats hold a sizable lead in the congressional horse race and an advantage on most major issues. Democrats lead by 50%-41% among registered voters in the test ballot, which is little changed from last September (52%-40%). While retaining a huge advantage on traditional party strengths like the environment and health care, Democrats also are seen as better able to deal with the economy (by 46%-36%) and reform the federal government (42%-29%). Terrorism, and to a lesser extent crime, remain the GOP’s only strong issues among 12 tested in the survey.

President Bush’s unpopularity has become a drag on his party’s prospects in the fall. Roughly three-in-ten registered voters (31%) say they consider their vote for Congress as a vote against Bush, compared with 18% who say they see it as a vote for the president; 47% say Bush is not much of a factor in their decision. This represents a marked change from a comparable point in the previous midterm campaign ­ in February 2002 ­ when by nearly four-to-one (34% to 9%) more voters considered their vote as one in favor of, rather than against, the president.

Yet the Democratic Party also shows signs of weakness in the key area of leadership. Slightly more Americans say the GOP has better political leaders, by 41%-37%. Overall, the Democratic Party has a more favorable image than the GOP, though its advantage here is fairly modest. About half of the public (48%) say they have favorable overall opinion of the Democratic Party, while 44% have a negative impression. For the GOP, negative opinions outnumber positive ones (by 50% to 44%). Notably, both parties are viewed less favorably than they were last summer.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 1-5 among 1,502 adults, finds that by 31% to 14%, more people say the Republican Party has greater involvement than the Democratic Party in congressional corruption. But fully a third (34%) volunteer that both parties are equally involved in corruption. And most Americans say there is nothing new about bribery and corruption in Congress. Six-in-ten say these problems are no different than in the past, compared with 36% who believe that corruption is more common today.

Independents Boost Democrats in ’06

By a 50% to 41% margin, more registered voters say they will vote Democratic in this year’s Congressional election. The Democratic advantage stems from the party’s significant lead among independent voters, 51% of whom favor the Democrats, while just 32% favor the Republicans. Among partisans on both sides, more than nine-in-ten say they plan to vote for their own party’s candidate.

Four years ago, in the early stages of the 2002 midterm, independents were divided evenly over whether to vote Republican (42%) or Democratic (39%). The 19-point advantage Democrats hold among independents represents a sizable shift in voting intentions. By comparison, both Democrats and Republicans are just as loyal to their own congressional candidates today as they were in February 2002.

The Democratic Party’s current lead is identical to its advantage at a comparable point in the 1998 midterm, an election in which the party nearly gained control of the House. The two parties were in a virtual dead heat in the test ballot at this stage in 2002, an election in which the GOP picked up six House seats, and in 1994, when the Republicans swept into control of Congress. In that historic election, the Republicans did not open up a sizable lead in the congressional ballot until the fall.

Bush Hurting GOP

As was the case in 2002, roughly half of voters say that the president will be a factor in their vote. However, Bush’s net impact on the 2006 race so far is the opposite of what it was four years ago. In the late stages of the 2002 congressional campaign, 30% of voters said they thought of their congressional vote as a vote for George W. Bush, while 20% said they were voting against the president. Today, these figures are reversed ­ 31% say their midterm vote is a vote against Bush, while 18% are motivated by their support for the president.

Currently, 43% of Republican voters view their choice as a vote in favor of Bush; that compares with 59% of Republican voters expressing this opinion in October 2002. A majority of Democratic voters (55%) now say their ballot will be a vote against Bush; in October 2002, 42% said they were voting against Bush. And about twice as many independents say they see their vote as a vote against Bush than did so in October 2002 (31% now vs. 14% then).

How Bad for Incumbents?

The survey suggests potential problems for congressional incumbents this year. Most voters (59%) say they would like to see their own representative in Congress reelected this fall, compared with 28% who would not like their own representative to win another term. This reflects a somewhat more anti-incumbent mood than was present in 2002, 1998 or 1990. Only in October 1994 did as many (29%) want to see their congressional representative voted out. But district-level dissatisfaction this year is not nearly as high as in 1994 overall ­ just 49% said they supported their incumbent’s reelection in 1994, ten points lower than is the case today.

Thinking beyond the candidates in their own district, the number of registered voters who say they want to see most members of Congress defeated this year is up, but also not at record highs. Just under half (49%) say most members should not be returned to office, up from 38% in October 2002 and 39% in October 1998. Only in October 1994 was this figure higher, when 56% said most members should be voted out. Again, anti-incumbent attitudes today are not nearly as strong as in the final month of the 1994 race. Currently, 36% say most members should be reelected, compared with just 28% in October 1994.

Not surprisingly, Democrats and independents are the most dissatisfied with the current group of incumbents. By almost two-to-one, both Democrats and independents believe most members should not be returned to office; 51% of Republicans want to see most members return. But even among Republicans, more than a third (35%) say most should not be reelected.

Democrats Optimistic

Democrats are highly optimistic about their party’s prospects in next year’s congressional midterm elections. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats (64%) say they think their party will do better in 2006 than it has in recent elections ­ just 2% see the Democratic Party doing worse than usual next year. By comparison, just 23% of Republicans predict that the GOP’s position will improve in the coming election; 17% think their party will do worse than it has recently, and 56% believe things will stay about the same.

Democratic Issue Advantage

The public believes the Democratic Party could do a better job than the GOP on a host of policy issues. The Democrats hold a huge advantage on the environment and health care, and smaller but still significant leads on several other issues, including deficit reduction (12 points), taxes (11 points) and education (11 points).

Neither party has a significant edge on immigration and Iraq. The GOP maintains a sizable advantage as the party better able to deal with the terrorist threat at home (by 46%-30%), and a smaller lead in reducing crime (seven points).

In most cases, these opinions have changed little in recent years. However, the Democratic Party
has recaptured its advantage as the party better able to improve the educational system, which it lost early in Bush’s presidency. Throughout the first two years of his administration, the public was divided over which party had the best ideas for education.

But today 44% say the Democratic Party can do a better job of improving education, compared with 33% who choose the GOP. In early 2002, independents were evenly divided on this issue (35% Democratic Party, 34% Republican Party); today they decisively favor the Democratic Party (45%-24%).

Favorable Views of Both Parties Below 50%

The Democratic lead across issues does not translate into a significant advantage in terms of overall party image. Just under half of the public (48%) has a positive view of the Democrats, compared to 44% for Republicans. The narrow Democratic advantage on this measure is largely driven by independents, who have a mixed view of the Democratic Party (44% favorable, 44% unfavorable), but an overwhelmingly negative opinion of the GOP (32% favorable, 57% unfavorable).

But the public remains largely unimpressed with both political parties. The unfavorable ratings for both parties are at their highest levels in measures dating to 1992; in addition, the current survey and the previous one (in October 2005) mark the only times in which both parties have been rated favorably by less than half of the public.

Rating the Parties’ Leaders

By a slight 41%-37% margin, more Americans say the Republican Party, rather than the Democratic Party, has better political leaders. Independents, who tend to agree with Democrats on most issues, are divided over which party has the better leadership. Meanwhile, partisans generally back their own party leaders, although Republicans are more enthusiastic about the GOP leadership than Democrats are about Democratic leaders.

Men in particular say the Republican Party has better leaders (by 46%-33%) while women narrowly prefer Democratic leaders (40%-37%).

Who Leads the Democratic Party?

More people name Hillary Clinton as the current leader of the Democratic Party than any other major Democratic figure. Presented with a list of ten names, one-in-four (26%) name Sen. Clinton as the person they think of as the party’s leader these days. Bill Clinton (14%) and John Kerry (12%) are also frequently chosen.

The party’s institutional leaders, Howard Dean (4%), Nancy Pelosi (3%) and Harry Reid (1%) are chosen as the party leader by fewer than one-in-twenty. About as many see John Edwards (4%), Al Gore (4%) or Barack Obama (3%) as the Democrats’ leader.

While there is no overwhelming consensus as to the leader of the party, just 8% volunteer that “nobody” leads the Democratic Party. Republicans were somewhat more likely than Democrats to offer this assessment.

In other respects, there are only minor differences in how Republicans and Democrats view the party’s current leadership. Democrats are somewhat more likely to name Bill Clinton or John Kerry as the party’s current leader, while Republicans are more apt to choose Dean, Pelosi or Reid.

Congress’ Favorability Falls

Public views of Congress as an institution are at their lowest point in over a decade. Currently, 47% express an unfavorable opinion of Congress, while 44% feel favorably. This marks the lowest favorability marks for Congress since the unpopular government shutdown in late 1995. Even during the impeachment of former President Clinton, a slightly higher percentage gave Congress a favorable rating (48% in January 1999). And in the summer of 1994, a few months before the GOP gained control of the House and Senate, 53% expressed a favorable view of Congress.

The growing unhappiness with Congress represents a sharp turnaround from recent years. In January 2001, 64% expressed a favorable view of Congress, 20 points higher than today. While there are no data on views of Congress from July 2001 to June 2004, ratings of virtually all domestic institutions grew more favorable following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. If anything, it is likely that Congress’s image improved even more in late 2001, making today’s negative ratings even more notable.

‘Bribery’ Common, Payoffs Less So

As was the case in January, an overwhelming number of Americans (81%) say that the recent reports of lobbyists bribing members of Congress are common behavior, while just 13% believe they are isolated incidents of corruption. This view is qualified, however, when respondents who say that corruption is commonplace are asked if this means that lawmakers trade votes for money, or that they just pay more attention to campaign donors.

A plurality ­ 38% of the general public ­ believes that lawmakers pay more attention to campaign donors, while 29% feel that members of Congress actually trade specific votes on legislation for money and personal favors. However, 11% volunteer that members of Congress engage in both practices ­ trading votes for money and paying attention to donors.

In a similar vein, far fewer people say their own member of Congress has taken bribes from lobbyists than believe such behavior is commonplace. Roughly four-in-ten (41%) say their member has taken bribes from lobbyists, while 35% say they have not; a sizable number (24%) do not express an opinion. More independents than Republicans or Democrats say their member has received bribes from lobbyists.

Many See Corruption as Bipartisan

More than twice as many people think the Republican Party, rather than the Democratic Party, has greater involvement in congressional corruption (31% vs.14%). But a plurality of Americans (34%) volunteer that both parties are equally implicated in bribery and corruption in Congress.

A solid majority of Democrats (55%) say the GOP is more involved in corruption on Capitol Hill. Independents view the problem of corruption as bipartisan ­ 43% volunteer that both parties are equally involved in corruption, while 29% point to the Republican Party. Roughly a third of Republicans (34%) say that both parties are embroiled in corruption, compared with 29% who say the Democratic Party has more deeply involved in corruption.

College graduates are somewhat more likely than those with less education to say that both parties are equally involved in corruption in Congress. Young people, in particular, believe that the Republican Party is more involved in corruption ­ 42% of those ages 18-29 express this view, compared with no more than three-in-ten in other age categories.

Corruption Nothing New?

Six-in-ten Americans, including majorities in all major political and demographic categories, believe that bribery and corruption in Congress are no more common now than in the past; just 36% say these practices are more common today.

Republicans and independents, by roughly two-to-one each, say that bribery and corruption on Capitol Hill are no more common now than in the past. A higher percentage of Democrats believe that corruption is more frequent now, but a majority (54%) feels the level of corruption is no different than in the past.

People ages 65 and older are evenly divided in their view of whether bribery and corruption in Congress are more common today ­ 46% say they are, while 48% disagree. Majorities in other age categories say corruption is no different now than in the past.

More Say Health System Needs Repair

An increasing number of Americans say that the nation’s health care system needs to be completely rebuilt. Roughly a third (32%) believe the system should be completely rebuilt and another 46% say it needs major changes. Only one-in-five say the health care system works pretty well and needs only minor changes. The percent saying the system needs to be completely rebuilt is up 11 points from last January when just 21% expressed this view.

Beyond health care, the public believes that several other government services and systems are also in need of massive repairs. Seven-in-ten say the Medicare system should be completely rebuilt (28%) or needs major changes (42%). About as many make the same assessment of immigration policy.

Roughly a quarter (26%) think the Social Security system should be completely rebuilt; just 15% said that last year, amid the debate over Bush’s failed proposal for private investment accounts. The growing support for restructuring Social Security comes evenly across party lines.

A year ago, half of Americans felt the tax system worked pretty well or at most needed minor changes. But that figure has dropped to 35%, as the number saying the tax system is in need of complete rebuilding or major changes has increased to 61% (up from 46%). Independents are by far the least satisfied with the current tax system and the most in favor of major reforms.

The view that the health care system needs to be completely rebuilt has increased especially among moderate and liberal Republicans, and liberal Democrats. The percentage of moderate and liberal Republicans who say health care needs to be complete restructured has more than doubled since January 2005 ­ from 13% to 33%. A majority of liberal Democrats (52%) now believe the health care system should be completely rebuilt, up from 35% last year.

The largest partisan differences come in views of the nation’s homeland security system. A solid majority of Republicans (57%) feel the system works pretty well or needs only minor changes. That view is shared by only a quarter of Democrats and 37% of independents; majorities in both groups say the system should be completely rebuilt or needs major changes (69% of Democrats, 55% of independents). By comparison, there are little or no partisan differences over the need to rebuild Social Security or immigration policy.

Distrust of the Federal Government Rises

Just as views of Congress have become somewhat more negative, so too have opinions about the federal government. About a third (34%) say they think they can trust the government in Washington to do what’s right “just about always” or “most of the time,” while 65% say they trust the government “only sometimes” or “never.” This is nearly identical to opinion last September, and is much more negative than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the first two months following 9/11, surveys showed very high levels of trust.

Despite the rise in government distrust, Americans are not as negative about the government in Washington as they were during the mid-1990s, nor has disgruntlement reached the levels seen in the late 1970s when economic and foreign policy problems weighed on the public.

The ratings today are similar to those seen during Bill Clinton’s second term in office. In February 1998, 34% said they trusted the government always or most of the time. But the partisan patterns are very different today. Now, a majority of 55% of Republicans trust the federal government at least most of the time, compared with just 27% in 1998. For Democrats, the numbers are nearly reversed: 21% trust government today; 44% did so in 1998.

A similar pattern is seen in another measure of trust in government. Half of the current poll’s respondents (50%) said they now have an unfavorable opinion of the federal government in Washington, while 43% are favorable. In November 2001, 82% had a favorable opinion.

Today’s favorable ratings for the government are slightly higher than in 1997 when 38% were positive and 59% were negative. As with trust in government, the big difference between 1997 and today is that Republicans are much happier with the government and Democrats much less happy. In 1997, two-thirds (66%) of Republicans said they had an unfavorable opinion of the government (with 32% favorable), while Democrats were divided evenly (50% favorable, 47% unfavorable). Today, the vast majority of Republicans have a favorable opinion of the government (72%), compared with just 29% of Democrats.

The Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court continues to be held in generally high regard by the public, with 60% saying they have a favorable opinion of the high court. But this is somewhat lower than the level of esteem for the court through much of the 1980s and 1990s, when an average of about 73% had favorable views.

As with other aspects of the government, there is now a distinct partisan division in evaluations of the court, with three-quarters of Republicans (76%) holding favorable views of the courts and Democrats split in their opinions (45% favorable, 40% unfavorable). Liberal Democrats are even more negative (51% unfavorable). This pattern is very different from earlier years such as 1997, when 77% of Republicans and 81% of Democrats regarded the Supreme Court favorably.

Most Favor Media’s Right to Report

With security concerns paramount in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, many Americans saw justification for government censorship of news stories that might threaten security efforts. But in the years since, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum have moved away from this position, and are more likely to back the media’s right to report on stories they see as in the national interest.

Currently, 56% say it is more important for the news media to report stories they feel are in the national interest, while just 34% believe it is more important for the government to censor news stories on national security grounds. In February 2003, somewhat fewer (50%) backed the media’s right to report; in November 2001, two months after the 9/11 attacks, the balance of opinion was in favor of government censorship.

Democrats back media freedom over the government’s ability to censor by roughly three-to-one (68% to 23%); Republicans by a smaller margin (53%-38%) say it is more important for the government to censor stories that it believes threaten national security. The partisan divide has widened since 2001, even as both Republicans and Democrats (as well as independents) have become more supportive of the media’s unfettered right to report. Independents are much closer to Democrats than Republicans on this issue; 62% of independents say it is more important for the media to report stories it sees as being in the national interest.

Press Favorability Rises

While views of government, Congress and the political parties have sagged, public satisfaction with the news media has rebounded over the past few years. Since October, the percentage rating the news media favorably has risen seven points (to 59%). A little over a year ago, in December 2004, just 43% rated the news media favorably.

While Republicans take a far dimmer view of the news media than do Democrats, Americans on both sides of the political divide feel more favorably than they have in recent years. Currently, 49% of Republicans rate the media favorably, and 48% give an unfavorable rating. The favorable-to-unfavorable margin among Republicans last October was 44% to 53%. Fully 71% of Democrats give the press a favorable rating, up from 62% in October. And independents also give
better ratings today (57%) than last fall (50%).