By NBC News Election Unit
NBC News
updated 10/2/2006 7:39:05 AM ET 2006-10-02T11:39:05

Five weeks out from the midterm elections, MSNBC/McClatchy polls, conducted by Mason-Dixon in eight states, show Democrats are in striking distance of taking control of the Senate.The Democrats are very likely to gain several Senate seats with some races still rated as toss-ups.

In the Senate, Democrats need to gain six seats to regain control of the chamber. Our polls show that this is certainly possible as five races are toss-ups, one now narrowly shows a gain for Democrats -- Pennsylvania -- and the party maintains control of Sen. Maria Cantwell’s Senate seat in Washington.  In addition, other Mason-Dixon polls released Sunday indicate trouble for Republicans in three other GOP-held seats.

The numbers
Here are state-by-state results of the latest MSNBC/McClatchy polls. Click the state name to read the poll data. And click the candidates' name for their profiles.

And in other Mason-Dixon polls, Democrats seem well positioned to gain seats: 

  • In Ohio , a Plain Dealer poll shows incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine and Democrat Sherrod Brown in a virtual tie, 43 percent for DeWine to 45 percent for Brown.  There are 10 percent undecided in this race.
  • In Montana , a Lee Newspaper poll shows incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns trailing Democratic challenger Jon Tester by a 40 percent to 47 percent margin with 10 percent undecided.
  • In Tennessee , a poll conducted for the Memphis Commercial Appeal Chattanooga Free Press shows Harold Ford, Jr . and Bob Corker in a virtual tie, 43 percent for Ford to 42 percent for Corker with 14 percent still undecided.

In all, these key Senate races show the following:

  • Two Republican incumbents in very serious trouble, Burns and Santorum.
  • Four Republican incumbents tied with their challengers, Chaffee, Allen, Talent, and DeWine.
  • One Democratic incumbent tied with his challenger, Menendez.
  • One Democratic incumbent with a real lead, Cantwell.
  • One Democratic open seat with a Democrat in the lead, Cardin in Maryland.
  • One Republican open seat with a tie, Tennessee.

The results show that the Democrats have a real chance of gaining control of the Senate.  However, as the election approaches, Democrats may have to lead by significant amounts to counteract the well-funded Republican get-out-the-vote effort.  And almost every toss up seat needs to break for the Democrats for them to gain the six seats that they need.

The issues
Democratic candidates are better positioned to win in those Senate races that are largely being shaped by voters' unease over Iraq and a sense that the nation is on the wrong track. 

In all eight states polled by MSNBC/MCClatchy, more likely voters believe that the most important issue is Iraq than terrorism.  And in keeping with the partisan political rhetoric, Democratic Senate candidates win among those who believe Iraq is the most important issue, whereas Republican Senate candidates win among those who believe terrorism is the most important issue.

Opinions on troop withdrawal from Iraq and disapproval of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq also help the Democrats as a majority of voters in each state disapprove of how the war has been handled.  Also, in each of these states, more respondents want to see a partial or total withdrawal of troops from Iraq than want to keep the same number of troops or send more troops.

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A majority of voters in all eight states polled believe that “things in the country” are “off on the wrong track”.  Most of the likely voters in all these states are either “very” or “somewhat” worried about the direction of the nation’s economy in the next few years and worried about another terrorist attack.

Although recent polling shows Bush’s presidential approval rating improving slightly, public opinion of the President remains somewhat weak with approval ratings below 50 percent in each state poll. Congress fares much worse with approval ratings below 30 percent in each state. 

The political environment in these eight states seems to favor the Democrats. These polls show that Republicans need to move the agenda away from Iraq to issues where the party demonstrates more strength.

Governor races
A glance at the key governor races around the country.

  • In California , Incumbent Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger leads his Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, by 13 percentage points, 49 percent to 36 percent, with 12 percent undecided.  And incumbent Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein leads her Republican challenger, Dick Mountjoy, 53 percent to 23 percent, with 20 percent undecided.
  • In Pennsylvania , Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell leads Republican Lynn Swann, 54 percent to 37 percent, with 10 percent undecided.
  • In Maryland, Democrat Martin O’Malley leads incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich by 47 percent to 43 percent, with 9percent undecided.
  • In Rhode Island , incumbent Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri leads Democrat Charlie Fogarty 50 percent to 34 percent, with 16 percent undecided.

Methodology
These polls were conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc.of Washington, D.C. from:

  • September 25 through September 28, 2006, in Rhode Island and California.
  • September 24 through September 27, 2006, in Missouri, Washington, and New Jersey.
  • September 23 through September 27, 2006, in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
  • September 26 through September 28, 2006, in Montana.
  • September 25 through September 27, 2006, in Tennessee and Ohio.

A total of 625 likely voters in each state were interviewed by telephone.  Those interviewed were selected by the random variation of the last four digits of telephone numbers.

A cross-section of exchanges were utilized in order to ensure an accurate reflection of the state. Quotas were assigned to reflect voter turnout by county. The margin for error, according to standards customarily used by statisticians, is no more than plus or minus 4 percentage points in each poll. This means that there is a 95 percent probability that the "true" figure would fall within that range if the entire population were sampled. The margin for error is higher for any subgroup, such as a gender or regional grouping.

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