Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Democrats Fail to Impress in First 100 Days

Government Faulted on Vets’ Care, Military Ratings Slip Post-Walter Reed

Summary of Findings

As the Democratic-led Congress approaches the 100-day mark, pluralities of Americans approve of the way that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are handling their leadership roles. However, the public gives Democrats mixed reviews for delivering on their campaign promises and for their policies and proposals. Slightly more disapprove of the Democrats’ policies than approve (42% disapprove vs. 37% approve).

Today’s Democratic congressional leaders are far less visible — but also less controversial — than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was at a similar point early in the 104th Congress. In April 1995, Republicans were seen as keeping their promises by 59% of the public — far more than the 40% who currently say that about the Democrats. However, Americans were then evenly split in their views of the GOP’s proposals.

Gingrich, in particular, was highly visible (fully 85% felt they could rate his performance by 100 days in office), but highly divisive (43% approved and 42% disapproved of his performance). By comparison, three-in-ten do not know enough about Nancy Pelosi to rate her performance. On balance, however, more than twice as many approve of Pelosi’s job performance than disapprove (48%-22%).

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 21-25 among 1,503 adults, finds that the public remains satisfied that the Democrats won control of Congress, though positive feelings have declined since shortly after the November elections. A 54% majority says they are happy that the Democrats prevailed in the elections, down from 60% who held that view in the week following Election Day. Similarly, 54% say they expect the Democratic leaders will be successful in getting their programs passed into law, compared with 59% in November.

While enthusiasm for the Democrats’ victory has slipped, the party’s image continues to improve relative to the GOP’s. Nearly half (47%) say the Democratic Party can better manage the federal government, compared with 31% who choose the Republican Party. A year ago, the Democrats’ edge on management was just four points. In addition, slightly more Americans now say the Democratic Party, rather than the Republican Party, has stronger leaders, wiping out the GOP’s substantial advantage on this leadership trait.

The survey finds that in the wake of reports describing shoddy medical treatment for military personnel at the Walter Reed Army Hospital, the public has a low opinion of how well the government is doing in caring for the troops. Only about a quarter of Americans (26%) say the government has done an excellent or good job in providing medical care to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Opinions of the military remain highly positive. Favorable views of the military outnumber negative ones by more than four-to-one (77%-17%). But this is the first time since the 9/11 attacks that favorable opinions of the military have slipped below 80%. In addition, even fewer people express favorable opinions of “military leaders” than of “the military” (65% vs. 77%).

The survey shows that Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain, the two front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination, are generally viewed as ideological moderates. Majorities of Republican voters and those who lean Republican rate both candidates as close to the middle on a six-point ideological scale. By contrast, most Republican voters rate George W. Bush — and Newt Gingrich — at more conservative points on the ideological spectrum.

While the war in Iraq is the dominant issue in Washington, it is having surprisingly little impact on the presidential nomination contests in the two major parties. For instance, despite McCain’s strong public stance in favor of Bush’s troop surge plan, he is not demonstrating particular strength among Republicans who say more troops are needed in Iraq. About the same proportions of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who support Giuliani, and who support McCain, believe more troops are needed in Iraq. Similarly, among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters, comparable percentages of Hillary Clinton supporters and Barack Obama supporters favor withdrawing U.S. troops from as Iraq as soon as possible.

Few Can Cite Congressional Accomplishments

Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (69%) cannot name anything important the new Congress has done so far. This is higher than the 61% who could name nothing after the Republicans’ first 100 days in the spring of 1995.

Congress’s most visible action has been on Iraq; 16% cite the war and efforts to bring the troops home as the most important thing Congress has done. Oversight and accountability (4%), and challenging President Bush (4%), are the other visible actions on the part of the new Congress.

The Democrats’ domestic policy priorities have gotten little notice; just 2% cite legislative action on raising the minimum wage as Congress’s most important accomplishment.

The Republicans’ domestic agenda received modestly more attention in April 1995. Overall, 28% cited issues or legislation as the most important thing that the new Congress had accomplished, with 8% mentioning the balanced budget or spending, 7% tax cuts, and 6% welfare reform.

Congressional Investigations

The Democrats’ stepped-up pace of investigations has not drawn much in the way of negative reaction. Just 31% believe Congress is spending too much time investigating possible government wrongdoing, while slightly more (35%) say they are spending too little time on this, and a quarter believe that the time spent on investigations has been appropriate.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats or independents to say that Congress is spending too much time on investigating possible wrongdoing. Still, only about half of Republicans (48%) express this view, while nearly as many say Congress is spending too little time (24%), or the right amount of time (20%), on investigations.

In addition, more independents say Congress is spending too little time on investigations than too much (by 39%-29%). Roughly the same number of Democrats as independents say Congress is devoting too little time to investigations.

Democratic Constituencies Mostly Satisfied

Liberal Democrats nationwide tend to be more satisfied with the congressional leadership compared with their more moderate and conservative counterparts. Overall, 76% of liberal Democrats approve of the policies and proposals Democratic leaders have put forward, compared with 58% among moderate and conservative Democrats. Liberal Democrats also give the party higher marks for keeping its campaign promises (68% compared with 57% among moderate and conservative Democrats).

Pluralities of all Democrats say they would like to see Congress spend more time investigating possible government wrongdoing, but 36% of liberals within the party say the leaders are handling this about right, compared with 28% of the party’s moderates and conservatives.

Democrats are critical of how the Congressional leaders are dealing with Iraq — overall just 29% of Democrats say Congress is doing an excellent or good job in this regard. Liberals are somewhat more positive (35% excellent/good vs. 26% among moderates and conservatives), but majorities of both subgroups give Congress poor ratings in this regard.

Independents Critical of Dem Policies

Independents have mixed reactions to the new Democratic leadership in Congress. By a wide margin (52% to 30%), independents say they are happy the Democrats won the majority. However, many independents express dissatisfaction with what the Democrats are doing. Nearly half (47%) of independents say they disapprove of the policies and proposals of the Democratic leaders in Congress while just 30% approve. Independents were less critical of the Republican leaders’ plans and policies in 1995. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) approved of their agenda, while 43% disapproved.

Party Images

The Democratic Party’s image advantage over the Republican Party — which helped them win a majority in the 2006 midterm elections — has continued to widen. The percentage saying the Democrats are better able to manage the federal government has risen from 39% roughly a year ago to 44% just prior to the election to 47% today; the Democratic Party currently holds a 16-point advantage over the GOP in this area.

Similarly, by a margin of 43% to 25% more Americans say the Democratic Party, rather than the Republican Party, governs in a more honest and ethical way. This compares to a slimmer 36% to 28% Democratic edge a year ago.

The most striking shift in evaluations of the parties comes in ratings of the leaders themselves. Despite trailing the Democrats on a number of issues and traits, Republican leaders were consistently rated as the “stronger” leaders throughout the 2006 election cycle. But this wide advantage has now vanished — with slightly more saying the Democratic Party’s leaders are stronger (41% vs. 36%). Similarly, 44% say the Democratic Party has “better” leaders while 29% say the Republican Party does. In the buildup to the 2006 midterm, Republicans had a slim edge on this measure.

These relative advantages reflect negative feelings about the Republican Party as much as positive feelings about the Democrats. As shown in Pew’s recent report “Political Landscape More Favorable to Democrats,” the favorability ratings of the Democratic Party have not improved, despite steep losses in Republican Party identification and a decided shift in values over the past few years. It is views of the Republican Party that have changed dramatically in a negative direction.

In addition, on several important traits, the Democratic Party’s lead is comparable to the Republican Party’s advantage in April 1995. For example, at that time the GOP led by 49%-30% as the party better able to manage the federal government. That is on par with the Democratic Party’s current 16-point advantage. Similarly, in April 1995 51% said that the Republican Party could bring about needed change (52% currently say the Democratic Party).

While the Republicans maintained a narrow edge on effective management of the government into the late 1990s, their advantage in perceptions of being better able to bring about needed change was short-lived; by July 1996, 46% said the Democratic Party could bring about needed changes, compared with 39% who named the Republican Party.

Bush Today vs. Clinton in ’95

While there are differences in how Americans view today’s Democratic leaders compared with the Republican leadership in 1995, the bigger gap is in views of the president. Despite his party’s losses in the 1994 midterm, Bill Clinton received a 47% job approval rating in the spring of 1995. A 41% plurality at the time said he was handling relations with the new GOP leaders “about right” and 27% wanted him to challenge Gingrich and his colleagues more than he currently was.

Today, George W. Bush’s job approval lingers at 33%, and just 27% say Bush is handling relations with the Democratic leaders “about right.” Instead, a 43% plurality would like to see him go along with the Democratic leaders more than he currently does.

Problems with Military Medical Care

In the wake of well-publicized problems with military medical care, the public is harshly critical of the government’s performance in providing care for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Just 26% rate the government’s performance as excellent (4%) or good (22%), while 65% say it is either only fair (33%) or poor (32%).

Ratings of the government’s handling of medical care for returning soldiers is divided along partisan lines, with Republicans expressing a less negative opinion than Democrats. Even so, a plurality of Republicans (47%) say the government has done only a fair or poor job in providing medical care to U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Roughly three-quarters of Democrats (76%) and 68% of independents take a negative view of the government’s performance in this area.

Regarding the scope of the military’s medical care shortcomings, 57% think the incidents at Walter Reed represent a common problem with the quality of care given to returning soldiers; just 18% say these problems are “unusual.” The belief that the problems go beyond the incidents at Walter Reed is much more widespread among Democrats and independents than among Republicans. Still, 43% of Republicans say the Walter Reed incidents represent a common problem with military medical care, compared with 33% who think the problems there were an aberration.

As might be expected, there is greater disagreement over who bears the greatest blame for the troubles at Walter Reed. Most Republicans (55%) say the blame largely rests with the hospital officials themselves, while a sizable minority (20%) blames Congress. A plurality of independents (36%) also believes that Walter Reed hospital officials are mostly to blame.

By contrast, 35% of Democrats say the Bush administration is mostly to blame for the problems at Walter Reed, compared with 24% who blame the hospital officials. Notably, just 10% of the public — including relatively small numbers of independents (12%), Democrats (9%) and Republicans (9%) — believe that most of the responsibility for the poor medical care at Walter Reed rests with top military officials.

Supporting the Troops

The public not only is highly critical of how the government is doing in caring for returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. More broadly, most Americans (72%) say the U.S. government does not give enough support to the soldiers who have served in the two wars. Just 21% believe that the government gives adequate support to the troops. By comparison, a narrow majority (51%) believes the American people give enough support to the returning soldiers, while 44% view the public’s support as inadequate.

There is a widespread belief that the government does not do enough for soldiers who return from Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, nearly three times as many conservative Republicans as liberal Democrats believe that the government generally does give enough support to these troops (35% vs. 12%).

There also are sharply contrasting views about whether the American people give enough support to the returning soldiers. A majority of all Democrats (55%) — including 63% of liberal Democrats — say that the public gives enough support to those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. But fewer than half of Republicans agree (44%). Just 42% of conservative Republicans think that the American people give enough support to the returning troops while a majority (54%) says they do not.

Veterans’ Views

People who have served in the military bring a unique perspective to the problems at Walter Reed, as well as to broader issues of whether the government and the public are doing enough for returning soldiers. For the most part, however, veterans’ opinions about these issues are not dramatically different from those of non-veterans. But veterans are much more attuned to the Walter Reed reports than are non-veterans. Fully 60% of male veterans have heard a lot about this story, compared with just 37% of men who are not veterans.

But male veterans do not apportion blame for the problems at Walter Reed any differently than do male non-veterans. And male veterans’ broader evaluations of the government’s performance in caring for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan also are similar to those of men who are not veterans.

‘The Military’ vs. ‘Military Leaders’

More than three-quarters of Americans (77%) say they have a favorable opinion of the military, while 17% express unfavorable opinions. Views of the military today are a bit less positive than surveys over the past several years. In January, 84% expressed a favorable opinion of the military, while 11% were unfavorable.

Nonetheless, significantly more people say they have a favorable opinion of ‘the military’ than say the same about ‘military leaders.’ About two-thirds (65%) have a positive opinion of military leaders, compared with 23% who have a negative opinion. In addition, just 17% say they have a very favorable view of military leaders, which is less than half the number expressing a very favorable opinion of the military (43%).

In most major demographic groups, fewer people express positive opinions of military leaders than of the military. Among political groups, independents and Democrats have much lower regard for military leaders than for the military. By contrast, 84% of Republicans say they have a favorable opinion of military leaders, which is only modestly lower than their view of the military generally (90%). And among conservative Republicans, identical and overwhelming majorities express positive opinions of the military and military leaders (93% each).

The Democrats and 2008

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters. More than a third (35%) say they would like to see Senator Clinton get the party’s nomination, and about a quarter (26%) want to see Obama win.

This survey was in the field when John and Elizabeth Edwards announced that Mrs. Edwards’ cancer had recurred — a story that drew considerable press attention. John Edwards is the favored candidate of 16% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Al Gore also received press coverage during the field period (March 21-25) as a result of his March 21 appearance on Capitol Hill to discuss global warming. He stands at 12% among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters.

Party activists and supporters have closely scrutinized the positions that Clinton and Obama have taken on the war in Iraq, but there are only modest differences in the Iraq views of supporters of each candidate.

The vast majority of Democrats (and Democratic leaners) who favor Clinton and Obama say they want to see their representative vote for a bill that would call for an August 2008 deadline for removing all U.S. troops from Iraq.

Obama’s supporters are somewhat more likely to favor bringing the troops home “as soon as possible” (78%) than are backers of Senator Clinton (70%). However, those who favor Obama are no more supportive of an immediate troop withdrawal — most favor bringing the troops home gradually over the next year or two.

Yet there are differences between Democrats and Democratic leaners who support Clinton and those who favor Obama — notably, in age, ideology, and gender. A greater share of Obama’s support comes from younger Democrats and Democratic leaners. More than a quarter of Obama supporters (27%) are below the age of 30, and 65% are below age 50; this compares with 17% of Clinton supporters who are under age 30 and 50% who are younger than 50. Obama also receives a larger share of his support from liberal Democrats than Clinton does. Roughly four-in-ten of Obama’s Democratic supporters (39%) describe themselves as liberals, compared with 25% of Clinton supporters.

As previous Pew surveys have shown, Clinton has strong appeal among women. Nearly two-thirds of Clinton supporters (64%) are female Democrats and women who lean Democratic. Comparatively, a smaller share of Obama’s support — though still a majority (56%) — comes from women.

The Republicans and 2008

Rudy Giuliani has a 33% to 23% edge over John McCain among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters looking ahead to the 2008 GOP primaries, while no other candidate is in double-digits.

Despite McCain’s strong stance in support of increasing the number of troops in Iraq, his supporters are no more committed to expanding the number of U.S. troops than are supporters of Giuliani. About the same number in both camps are of the view that more troops are needed in Iraq (46% among Giuliani backers, 44% among McCain backers), and similar majorities want their representatives to vote against legislation calling for the removal of troops by August of 2008.

In other ways as well, Republicans and Republican leaners who back McCain and Giuliani have similar profiles. Both camps are predominantly conservative, with somewhat similar numbers of white evangelical Protestants. Both candidates also receive comparable levels of support among younger and older voters.

Ideology of the GOP Field

The frontrunners for the GOP nomination are considered to be significantly more liberal than the typical Republican voter. Asked to rate each candidate’s ideology on a scale from one to six, where one represents a very conservative position and six very liberal, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain score nearly the same (an average rating of 3.2 and 3.1, respectively). This is slightly to the right of both the midpoint of the scale (3.5) and of where voters nationwide rate their own ideology (3.4). However, the average self-placement among Republican voters is at 2.6 on this scale — considerably further to the right of both leading candidates.

By this measure, Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush are squarely in line with the ideological position of the partisan base. Both are rated at 2.6 on this ideological scale by voters nationwide, which is exactly where Republican voters, on average, place themselves. The candidates’ ideological ratings are nearly identical among Republicans, Democrats and independents. However, former president Bill Clinton, who was included to provide a greater range of options on the survey, is viewed as more liberal by Republicans than by Democrats. Clinton is generally seen as liberal (an average rating of 4.5), but more so by Republicans (4.8) than Democrats (4.3). (The ideology of Democratic candidates will be tested on a future poll.)

Even when the analysis is limited to the views of Republicans and Republican-leaners, there is a gap between how these voters think of themselves ideologically and how they view the leading GOP presidential candidates. Slightly more than half (52%) of Republican-oriented voters place themselves at or near the conservative end of the spectrum, but most place Giuliani, McCain and Romney near the middle of the scale. Giuliani stands out as the least “conservative” of the candidates — just one-in-four Republican-oriented voters rate Giuliani as conservative, compared with 34% for Romney and McCain.

In terms of overall ideology, McCain’s image has not changed substantially among Republican voters since his first run for the presidency in 2000. In January of that year, when McCain was challenging George W. Bush for the party’s nomination, 58% of Republicans placed him near the center of the ideological spectrum, while 31% saw him as conservative. These figures are largely unchanged today, with a 51% majority rating McCain’s ideology as a “3” or “4” on the six-point ideological scale, and 34% placing him at the more conservative positions.

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