Introduction and Summary
With his speech to the United Nations, President Bush took an important step in making the public case for military action against Iraq. A 52% majority now says Bush has explained clearly what’s at stake for the United States in Iraq. Less than a month ago, just 37% felt the president had laid out a case for military action. At the same time, he has steadily raised his own approval rating over the past month. Nonetheless, his party remains locked in a dead heat in the battle for Congress, a stalemate that has persisted irrespective of the ups and downs in the president’s approval rating.
Fully 67% now approve of Bush’s job performance, up from 60% in late August and 63% in early September. Not surprisingly, the president won high marks for his speeches to the nation on the 9/11 anniversary; 69% rated them excellent or good. Bush’s more controversial U.N. speech was still viewed favorably by 59% majority.
This comes at a time when more Americans are seriously considering the prospect of war in Iraq 55% say they have thought a “great deal” about that, up from 46% last month. More than six-in-ten (64%) favor military action against Iraq and nearly half (48%) say they would favor such action even if it means significant U.S. casualties. At the same time, there is somewhat greater willingness to take unilateral action against Iraq if the allies do not agree with such action.
While the midterm elections have been overshadowed by Iraq and the continuing threat of terrorism, public attention to the campaign is on par with previous elections: 46% currently are following election news, compared with 49% four years ago. This despite the fact that the election is receiving far less press coverage than at the same stage in the 1998 campaign, which unfolded as the House engaged in impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.1
The latest Pew Research Center survey of 1,919 adults conducted Sept. 5-10 (with an additional poll of 1,150 conducted Sept. 12-16) shows there has been virtually no movement in the congressional ballot all year. The generic House ballot stands at the same statistical dead heat as in June, with Democrats holding a thin 46%-44% edge among registered voters. When the sample is narrowed to likely voters, the Republicans lead 47%-46%. While the congressional poll did not cover the period of Bush’s speeches on Sept. 11 and at the U.N., neither his soaring job approval marks early this year nor his declining ratings in late summer have significantly affected the congressional race. In fact, presidential approval has no greater impact on the generic ballot than it did four years ago.
At the same time, there is no evidence that Democrats have been able to capitalize on a summer’s worth of corporate scandals or a sagging economy. Republicans hold a slight 36%-31% lead as the party better able to deal with corporate corruption. Republicans have lost the lead they held early this year as the party better able to handle the economy; the two parties run even on this issue, mirroring the parity in the congressional ballot.
Otherwise, Democrats continue to rate more highly on their traditional domestic strengths prescription drug benefits and the environment while Republicans maintain a clear edge on terrorism and foreign policy. On Social Security, traditionally an important issue in midterm races, Democrats hold a modest 38%-30% lead, largely unchanged since May.
The poll indicates that turnout is likely to be on par with the 1998 midterm congressional election, but that, unlike 1998, Democrats express as much interest in voting as Republicans at this stage of the campaign. While Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to view their vote as a ballot “for” the president, Democrats are finding motivation in their party’s battle to capture Congress 55% of Democratic voters say party control is a factor in their vote, up from 46% in 1998.
While the public is expressing intense interest in Iraq, as many people followed news on the spate of child kidnappings (79%) as paid attention to reports on the debate over taking military action against Baghdad. Those stories, in turn, drew slightly more interest than the stories on the commemoration of the anniversary of Sept. 11 (74%). On the whole, most Americans did not feel inundated with the media’s coverage of the anniversary; a 55% majority found the amount of coverage to be appropriate, compared with 38% who say it was excessive. And after the 11th, 48% said the news coverage had helped them to come to terms with the tragedy.