Tight Battle for Congress
The battle for control of Congress is as close and as hard-fought as the presidential contest. But there is no sign that national issues or concerns are playing a major role in the struggle for Capitol Hill, and voters do not appear particularly dissatisfied with their own representatives or with Congress generally.
Democrats have led in the generic congressional ballot all year, and they currently hold a slim 47%-43% advantage among registered voters. Mirroring the presidential race, support for Democratic congressional candidates is particularly strong among women, minorities, and labor union families, along with voters who have less education and lower incomes.
Republicans run better among wealthier and better-educated voters, as well as white evangelical Christians and men. Men under age 50 favor Republican congressional candidates by a 51% to 39% margin, while men 50 and older, along with women of all ages, favor Democratic congressional candidates by roughly a 50% to 39% margin.
Local Issues Paramount
National issues and the partisan makeup of Congress are far from the minds of most voters. Fully 42% say that local or state issues will make the biggest difference in their congressional vote, while just 21% say national issues and the same number cites a candidate’s character and experience as making the biggest difference. Just 9% of respondents mention a candidate’s party as most important.
This focus on local conditions is typical of congressional elections. Currently, Democrats, independents, women, blacks and those under age 50 place the most emphasis on local and state issues when making up their minds about congressional races.
Voters are divided about whether party control of Congress is even an issue for them in this year’s congressional election. Half say the makeup of Congress makes no difference to them, while 46% say it will be a factor. Voters who identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats are equally more likely to consider party control (51% each) than independents (36%). Only 41% of voters under the age of 50 say party control will be a factor in their vote, compared to 53% of voters over 50.
Support for Incumbents
Voters who want to see their own member of Congress reelected outnumber those who do not by better than a three-to-one margin (60% to 17%). And regardless of their feelings about their own representative, more voters say they would like to see most members return to Congress next year than not. Republican voters are the most satisfied with the current Congress, with 48% wishing to see most members returned to office. Somewhat fewer Democrats (41%) and independents (32%) agree.
This overall satisfaction is on par with voter attitudes in recent elections, when support for incumbents was also relatively high. But in 1994 — a tumultuous political year when Republicans captured the House and ended decades of Democratic control — there was a break in this pattern; that year, 56% opposed the reelection of most members. However, even in the anti-incumbent mood of 1994, nearly half (49%) preferred to see their own member of Congress returned to office.
Finances Top Concern
In spite of the nation’s current economic prosperity, personal financial pressures top the list of Americans’ individual concerns, as they did in 1996. What makes this year different, however, is that health care concerns have now moved up to become a top-tier issue. And Gore has an advantage over Bush as the candidate best able to deal with each of these pressing personal issues.
When asked to name the biggest problem facing them and their families, 28% of voters cite concerns about their own finances — not having enough money to make ends meet, high prices and the cost of living. In 1996, 26% mentioned these sorts of concerns. Fully 17% now mention issues relating to the cost, availability and quality of health care. As many as 5% specifically name the cost of prescription drugs. Other top concerns this year are taxes (mentioned by 12% of voters) general economic concerns (cited by 10%) and education (cited by 7%). In each case, these findings are similar to 1996.
Older and younger Americans are affected by different sets of problems. Voters under age 50 are primarily focused on economic concerns — financial pressure, taxes and the economy. Those age 50 and older are most troubled by health care concerns, with financial pressures second and taxes assuming much less importance.
More Democrats than Republicans cite financial pressure and health care as their biggest problems. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to name taxes as their biggest problem — by a better than two-to-one margin.
Most voters believe that the next president can help them in dealing with these personal concerns. Fully 62% of voters who identify a problem say they think the person who is elected president can make a difference in dealing with that problem, while 30% believe the president can’t make a difference. Democrats are somewhat more likely than Republicans or independents to say the president can have an impact (71% vs. 60% and 58%, respectively).
Gore has a slight edge over Bush in terms of being the candidate who could do the most to help people with their specific problems. By a margin of 46%-40%, voters who think the president can make a difference choose Gore as the candidate who would help them the most. The vice president has a clear edge among those who name a health care concern as their biggest problem (63% vs. 25% for Bush). He has a similar advantage among those who cite financial pressures (53% vs. 35% for Bush). Bush is seen as the better candidate by those who point to taxes as the biggest problem facing them and their families. More than two-thirds of these voters say Bush could help them most with this issue, only 25% choose Gore.
Gas Prices Tops News Interest Index
The high price of gasoline was the top news story this month with 56% of Americans following this issue very closely. The high level of attention to gas prices nearly approached the level of interest during the U.S. military buildup prior to the Persian Gulf War when 62% followed the story very closely. Among this month’s other stories, the recent recall of defective Firestone tires was also very much on the minds of Americans, with 42% following very closely.
About one-quarter of the public paid close attention to the FDA’s controversial decision to make the abortion pill RU-486 available for sale in the United States. Women followed the story somewhat more closely than men (29%-23%).
News interest was down for the Olympics in Australia. Just 27% followed events in Sydney very closely compared to 1996 when 45% paid very close attention to the Atlanta games. The release of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee from prison stirred little interest — just 13% paid very close attention to this story. About one-in-five Americans closely followed the original accusations that China stole sensitive military technology from the United States last year.
On the international front, 18% paid very close attention to civil unrest and protests in Yugoslavia that led to the ouster of President Slobodan Milosevic. Renewed violence in the Middle East attracted close attention from 21% of the public.