Introduction and Summary
American voters divided their support for Republican and Democratic congressional candidates nearly equally in the weeks between President Clinton’s televised admission that he had an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky and news of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s report to Congress on the matter.
But with two months to go until the midterm elections, GOP prospects are being bolstered by significant improvements in the party’s national image, while Democrats are on shakier ground. Support for Democratic Party candidates continues to be closely tied to Clinton’s approval ratings, which so far have remained impervious to strong personal dislike of him and renewed public interest in the scandal.
Public esteem for Congress is at a very high level, and approval of the Republican congressional leadership now consistently outdistances disapproval for the first time since the 1995 government shutdowns. Today, the GOP congressional leadership gets a 44%-to-37% job approval rating, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s favorability rating has risen to 41% from 30% over the past year.
Consequently, the Republican Party’s image is better than it has been in 18 months. Pew’s latest national survey finds 56% of the public holding a favorable opinion of the GOP, up from 50% in March and 47% in August 1997. The survey also shows improved evaluations of Republicans relative to Democrats on five of 11 issue questions. Importantly for the GOP, the margin seeing Democrats as better able to handle education and health care has narrowed considerably since the spring. More positive views of Republicans by older people are an integral part of their current standing.
Republicans hold a slight edge over the Democrats in the generic House ballot measure. Two Pew surveys over the past month have found somewhat more support for Republican candidates than Democrats among likely voters. In the latest national survey conducted August 27-September 8, the GOP holds a 48%-to-45% edge, almost identical to the 47%-to-43% margin in a August 21-24 survey. The current survey of 2,266 adults has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
The GOP has not widened its lead in popular support over the Democrats in part because of the strong correlation between Clinton’s job approval (61%) and voter backing of Democratic candidates. Today, there is a stronger relationship between opinion of Clinton’s job performance and congressional voting intentions than between opinion of the congressional leadership and voter sentiment.
Speculation that interest in voting among core Democrats would decline in response to the Lewinsky scandal is not supported by the survey findings. Democrats were as likely to express interest in casting ballots as they were prior to the President’s August 17 admission of an inappropriate relationship with the White House intern.
Through late August and early September, approval of Clinton’s job performance remained unaffected by his sagging personal image and the stock market’s flip flops. While there is strong public interest in news about the stock market and greater concern about foreign policy generally and Russia specifically, views about Clinton’s job performance and national conditions remain robust. The polling, which bracketed the stock market volatility, found no decline in economic confidence, no slide in satisfaction with the state of the nation and no dip in Clinton’s approval rating.
Americans overwhelmingly say that President Clinton should remain in office: 76% of the public today wants Clinton to complete his term. Moreover, a solid majority says (65%) that even if Clinton did lie under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky, he should not be impeached.
Most Americans (57%) also say that they would have an unfavorable opinion of Congress if it should begin impeachment hearings (31% very unfavorable, 26% mostly unfavorable). Of those people, 62% say Clinton’s actions were not serious enough to warrant impeachment; 27% say they do not want the country put through the process. Fully 90% say that even the support of their own representative for impeachment hearings would not change their view.
The public drew these conclusions in a period when they were relatively tuned in to the scandal: 36% were paying very close attention, up 10 percentage points since mid-August. Only 27% said they were not following the news closely or at all, down from 44% last month.
While Clinton’s job performance rating remains high at 61%, his personal connection to the American people shows a steady decline. Today, 64% of Americans say they do not like Clinton personally, up from 53% who felt this way in February soon after reports of the sex scandal broke.
Clinton’s overall support is underpinned by approval of his policies. Americans give Clinton credit for addressing the country’s major problems: 45% say he has made progress toward solving them and another 34% say he tried but failed. Fully 70% of the public likes his policies. But the number of people who say they like both Clinton and his policies slipped to 31% from 39% in early February.