Summary of Findings

Iraq has become the central issue of the midterm elections. There is more dismay about how the U.S. military effort in Iraq is going than at any point since the war began more than three years ago. And the war is the dominant concern among the majority of voters who say they will be thinking about national issues, rather than local issues, when they cast their ballot for Congress this fall.

Pew’s latest nationwide survey finds 58% of the public saying that the U.S. military effort in Iraq is not going well, and a 47% plurality believes the war in Iraq is hurting, not helping, the war on terrorism. The poll finds extensive public awareness of a leaked intelligence estimate suggesting that the war is spawning more terrorism. More than third of Americans (35%) say they have heard a lot about the intelligence report, and these people are much more likely than others to say the war in Iraq is hurting the war on terror.

The survey, conducted Sept. 21-Oct. 4 among 1,804 Americans, was in the field when news broke that former Rep. Mark Foley sent sexually explicit emails to House pages. The Foley story has not significantly affected the midterm race: In interviewing conducted before news of the scandal surfaced, Democrats led by 51%-38% among registered voters; in the days after Foley resigned, the Democratic advantage was unchanged (50%-37%). Similarly, the scandal’s impact on opinions of GOP congressional leaders ­ and the Republican Party’s image for honest and ethical governance ­ has been fairly limited.

The survey finds that a majority of voters (51%) say national issues will matter more than local concerns in their vote for Congress. Just 23% say local matters will be more important to their vote. And among those who see national issues as paramount, the situation in Iraq is by far the most important concern; fully 51% cite Iraq as being most important (or second most important) factor in their vote, compared with 37% who mention terrorism, and 35% who cite the economy.

Iraq is by far the most important issue for Democratic voters, but 50% of independents who see national issues as trumping local concerns also say the situation in Iraq will be important to their vote. Terrorism is by far the leading issue for Republican voters; 57% of GOP voters who think national issues matter more than local issues say terrorism will be most important in their vote.

Positive perceptions of the situation in Iraq have eroded considerably just in the past few weeks. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say the U.S. military effort there is not going well ­ up from 48% in last month. But public attitudes about the war and what to do about the troops remain fairly stable. As was the case in early September, the public is evenly divided over whether U.S. troops should stay in Iraq until the situation there is stabilized (47%), or should be brought home as soon as possible (47%).

The survey shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans (81%) are aware of the recent fall in gas prices. Yet voters who know that gas prices are declining are just as likely as those who do not to cite the economy as an important issue in their vote this fall.

There also is a great deal of bipartisan voter cynicism about the causes of soaring energy costs in the past few years. More than half of voters (55%) cite “oil companies manipulating the prices” as the main reason for high gas prices, more than the combined number who point to recent wars in the Middle East (20%) and increased demand (16%). Notably, about as many Republicans as Democrats and independents say price manipulation by oil companies is the main factor behind high gas prices.

The congressional horserace has remained stable in recent weeks, in spite of the major political stories roiling Washington. The congressional test ballot for the entire polling period shows no significant change in the race since early September; 51% of registered voters say they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their district, compared with 38% who favor the GOP candidate. The Democrats’ advantage has moved in a fairly narrow range ­ between nine and 13 points ­ since the beginning of this year.

President Bush’s job approval rating stands at 37%, which is unchanged since early September and August. Public dissatisfaction with national conditions remains high: 63% say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country, which also is little changed from the summer (65% in July).

The survey contains further evidence that the president’s renewed focus on terrorism is raising the profile of the issue, particularly among Republican voters. A solid majority of Republican voters (57%) who say national issues, rather than local concerns, will matter more in their vote cite terrorism as the top individual issue. A third of independent voters who say national issues will matter most in their vote also point to terrorism as the most important (or second most important) issue in their vote.

However, the attitudes of independent voters on key aspects of terrorism policy are, if anything, closer to the opinions of Democratic than Republican voters. About half of independent voters (49%) say it is generally right for the government to conduct surveillance on suspected terrorists’ communications without court permission. That is far below the number of Republican voters who support this policy (81%); by comparison, 36% of Democratic voters say warrantless surveillance of suspected terrorists is generally right. Similarly, on the question of whether torture of suspected terrorists to gain important information can be justified, independent voters are a bit closer to Democratic than to Republican voters.

Verdict on 109th Congress: Little Accomplished

With lawmakers on an extended recess to campaign for reelection, the voters’ verdict on this congressional session is highly negative. Roughly four-in-ten (41%) say this Congress has accomplished less than its recent predecessors ­ and a solid majority of those who say this (62%) blame Republican leaders for the lack of achievement. In historical terms, the percentage saying this Congress has accomplished less than its predecessors slightly exceeds the percentage expressing this view in October 1994 (38%).

Most Democratic voters (57%) say Congress has accomplished less than usual. Among independent voters, the same number says this Congress’ accomplishments are less than its predecessors as say it has accomplished about the same (44%). The prevailing view among Republicans is that this Congress has been about as productive as those in the recent past (64%), though 20% say it has accomplished less than previous sessions.

More than eight-in-ten Democratic voters (86%) who view this session’s accomplishments as less productive than recent sessions blame Republican leaders for the lack of production; a plurality of independent voters (49%) agree.

Republican voters who say this Congress has accomplished less than its predecessors mostly blame Democratic leaders (41%), but nearly as many fault the leaders of both parties (35%).

While Democratic leaders get less criticism for Congress’s lack of output this year, their own job approval ratings remain lackluster. Just 35% of the public approves of the job Democratic leaders in Congress are doing, while 53% disapprove. That is only sl
ightly higher than the ratings for GOP congressional leaders (33% approve, 56% disapprove).

However, GOP leaders continue to get very favorable ratings from conservative Republicans (78% job approval). This stands in contrast to the middling ratings that Democratic leaders in Congress receive from liberal members of their party (55%). Independents give roughly the same low marks to the congressional leaders of both parties (28% Republican leaders, 27% Democratic leaders).

Party Images: GOP Loses Ground

The Democratic Party holds sizable, and in some cases growing, advantages in specific traits related to empathy, ethics, and managerial competence. By roughly two-to-one (55%-27%), more people say the phrase “is more concerned with the needs of people like me” better describes the Democratic Party and its leaders rather than the Republican Party and its leaders. This belief is little changed from April (52% Democrats vs. 28% Republicans).

The Democrats have gained some ground since April in views of which party “governs in a more honest and ethical way.” Currently, 41% say that phrase better describes the Democratic Party, while 27% say it better characterizes the GOP. In April, the Democrats’ lead in this area was 36%-28%. By a wide margin, the Democratic Party continues to be viewed as being able to “bring about the kind of changes the country needs” (by 48%-28%).

More people see the Republican Party and its leaders, rather than the Democratic Party and its leaders, as “more influenced by lobbyists and special interests” (by 41%-27%). And a smaller margin of people believe that the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party can better manage the federal government (44%-34%). While this represents a modest change from spring, it presents a striking contrast with the way the two parties were viewed in July 1994. At that time, the Republican Party held a substantial advantage as the party better able to manage the federal government when compared with the Democrats, who then controlled the White House and Congress.

Still a Tough Environment for Incumbents

Anti-incumbent sentiment remains widespread, though it has subsided a bit since the summer. Currently, 27% of voters say they do not want to see their own representative win reelection in the fall, compared with 32% in June. However, the percentage saying they do not want to see their own lawmaker reelected is comparable to levels seen in October 1994 (29%).

There also has been a decline since June in the percentage of voters who say they do not want to see most members of Congress reelected (from 57% to 48%). By this measure, anti-incumbent feeling is less prevalent than in October 1994, when 56% said they did not want most members in Congress reelected.

Comparing the two elections, Republican voters are now displaying more loyalty to incumbents than Democrats did a dozen years ago. Currently, just 17% of Republican voters say they do not want their own member reelected; that compares with 27% of Democratic voters who expressed this sentiment in October 1994.

In a similar vein, only about a quarter of Republican voters (27%) say they do not want to see most members of Congress win reelection (down from 35% in early September). In October 1994, fully 41% of Democratic voters said they did not want to see most members from the Democratically controlled Congress to win reelection.

Party Control of Congress Matters More

As Pew surveys have shown all year, an unusually high percentage of voters say they view their ballot as a vote “against” the president (39%), rather than a vote “for” Bush (18%); four-in-ten voters say Bush is not much of a factor in their vote. In September 2002, by contrast, twice as many voters said they thought of their vote as being for Bush rather than against him (by 29%-15%).

The question of which party controls Congress also is a much bigger factor in this election than in the previous two midterm campaigns. Nearly six-in-ten voters (57%) say the issue of partisan control of Congress will be a factor in their vote. This opinion, like many attitudes about the midterm campaign, has been stable for months.

Far more Democrats and Republicans say party control matters in their votes than did so four years ago. And about twice as many independent voters say party control is a factor in their vote than did so at a comparable point in 2002 (45% vs. 23%).

Views of Iraq Turn More Negative

Perceptions of the war in Iraq have grown more negative over the last month. In early September, Americans were split between those who felt U.S. military efforts were going well (47%) and those who believed they were not going well (48%). Now, just 37% think the war is going well, while six-in-ten (58%) say military efforts are going not too well or not at all well.

Evaluations of the war have grown significantly more negative among women; just 34% of women believe it is going well, compared with 45% earlier in the month. Conservative and moderate Democrats also are more downbeat in their assessments ­ only 26% now think military efforts are going well, compared to 39% in early September. And while most conservative Republicans still think things in Iraq are headed in a positive direction, they are less likely to do so now than they were a few weeks ago (67% positive, down from 80% in early September). The largest change in perceptions of the war has occurred in the Northeast, where the percentage of people who think the war is going well has dropped dramatically, from 48% to 24%.

Iraq Hurting War on Terror

Nearly half of the American public (46%) now believes the war in Iraq has hurt the war on terrorism, which approaches the highest percentage since Pew began asking this question in 2002 (47% in July 2005). By comparison, just 39% say it has helped the war on terrorism.

There is some evidence that opinions on this issue have been influenced by the recent leak of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) suggesting that the war in Iraq has increased the terrorist threat to the U.S. Roughly three-quarters of Americans (73%) say they have heard either a lot (35%) or a little (38%) about this report. Among those who have heard a lot, 57% believe the Iraq war is hurting efforts to combat terrorism. Those who have heard a little or have not heard of the report at all are much less likely to believe the war is damaging the campaign against terrorism (41%).

There is a significant gender gap on this question, with women (50%) more likely than men (42%) to believe Iraq is hurting the war on terrorism. As is the case with support for the war itself, there are deep political and ideological divisions in views about the Iraq war’s impact on the struggle against terrorism. Fully 73% of conservative Republicans ­ and a much smaller majority of moderate and liberal Republicans ­ say the war in Iraq has helped the war on terrorism. Just a quarter of conservative and moderate Democrats, and even fewer liberals (9%), agree. And a plurality of independents (47%) think Iraq is harming the war against terrorism.

Two-thirds (67%) of those who plan to vote for a Republican for Congress in the November elections think the war in Iraq is having a positive effect on the war on terrorism, while the same percentage of those who plan to vote for a Democrat say Iraq is harming the war on terror (67%).

Divided Over Troop Pullout

While public views of the situation in Iraq have grown more negative, there has been no change in opinions about whether U.S. forces should be withdrawn from the country. The public remains evenly divided between those who favor keeping “military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized” (47%), and those who think “the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible” (47%).

Over the last several months, attitudes on this question have remained quite steady, despite the fact that perceptions of the war’s progress have fluctuated considerably.

Since June, the share of the public saying we should keep troops in Iraq has hovered between 47% and 50%, while during the same time period the percentage who believe the war is going well first dropped from 53% to 41%, then rose to 47%, and has now declined once more to 37%.

Other opinions about the war also have been fairly stable. Currently, 53% say the U.S. should set a timetable for when troops will be withdrawn from Iraq.

That is somewhat higher than in early September (47%), but about the same as in the summer. The public also is divided over whether the decision to go to war was right (45%) or wrong (47%). The number saying the war was the wrong decision has ticked up since early September (43%), but is roughly the same as in August (46%).

Military Force and Terrorism

When asked about the future direction of the struggle against terrorism, half of Americans say their bigger concern is that we will rely too much on military force to deal with terrorism while 38% say the opposite ­ that we will be too reluctant to use military force.

A solid majority of conservative Republicans (63%) say their bigger concern is that we will rely too little on the use of military force in years to come; half of moderate and liberal Republicans agree. By contrast, most independents and Democrats ­ including 74% of liberal Democrats ­ say their greater concern is that we will rely too much on military force in fighting terrorism.

Immigration Divisions Persist

The public continues to favor a comprehensive approach to immigration policy: 55% support increasing border protection, while also creating a way for some illegal immigrants in the U.S. to become citizens; 41% favor focusing mostly on strong border protection and stiffer penalties on people entering this country illegally.

Both parties are divided over the issue: Conservative Republicans are evenly split, as are moderate and liberal Republicans. Most liberal Democrats support a comprehensive approach to immigration, but a much narrower majority of conservative and moderate members (54%) of the party agree.

Immigration is not among the top issues in the election ­ just 24% of voters who say national issues matter most in their vote rate it as very important. However, roughly three-in-ten Republicans (32%) and independents (27%) who say national issues matter more than local concerns cite immigration as the most important ­ or second most important ­ issue in their vote. That compares with just 12% of Democratic voters who say national issues matter more than local concerns.

Notably, there is a sizable gap in the salience of this issue between voters who favor a tough approach to immigration and those who support a comprehensive approach. Fully 33% of those who back strong border protection and stiffer penalties say immigration is important to their vote; that compares with just 11% of those who support a comprehensive approach to immigration policy.