WASHINGTON — Just 20 days until Election Day, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds approval of the GOP-held Congress is at its lowest mark in 14 years, the Republican Party's favorability rating is at an all-time low and President George W. Bush's approval rating remains mired in the 30s -- all ominous signs for a party trying to maintain control of Congress.
In fact, according to the poll, Republicans are in worse shape on some key measures than Democrats were in 1994, when they lost their congressional majorities.
"There is not a single number in here that would suggest the Democrats will not have their best showing in a decade -- and maybe two decades," says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican Bill McInturff.
Landslide of bad GOP news
The poll, which was taken of 1,006 registered voters from Oct. 13-16 and has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points, comes a few weeks after Republicans encountered a series of setbacks, including the release of an intelligence estimate calling the Iraq war a "cause célèbre" for Islamic militants, journalist Bob Woodward's unfavorable portrayal of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, and the news that former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., had inappropriate correspondence with teenage congressional pages.
In the survey, Bush's approval rating is at 38 percent, a one-point decline from a previous NBC/Journal poll released earlier this month after the Foley news first broke. Perhaps more revealing, only 16 percent now approve of the job Congress is doing -- its lowest mark since 1992.
Both sets of numbers suggest that the Republican Party is on more unstable ground than Democrats were in 1994, when they lost 52 House and 8 Senate seats. In October of that year, President Bill Clinton's approval rating among registered voters was at 46 percent, and 24 percent approved of the job the Democratic-controlled Congress was doing.
Dems a 'marginally accepted alternative'
What's more, in this latest poll, just 32 percent of respondents see the Republican Party in a positive light, while 49 percent view it negatively. Those are the party's worst marks in the history of the poll. In contrast, voters -- by a 37-35 percent margin -- view the Democratic Party positively.
McInturff, the GOP pollster, observes that after several months when both parties have had net-negative ratings on this question, this is second-straight NBC/Journal survey in which a plurality of voters see Democrats in a positive light. Hart adds that Democrats have become a "marginally accepted alternative."
"It might be grudging admiration," he says, "but it is enough admiration to make it through."
Moreover, 52 percent say they prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, compared with 37 percent who want Republicans to maintain power. It is the first time ever in this poll when a majority has sided with one party on this particular question. Earlier this month, Democrats held a nine-point advantage (48-39 percent).
The final GOP straw
Indeed, the poll finds that the events of the last few weeks -- such as the Foley scandal, the Woodward book, and the intelligence estimate -- have taken a toll on the GOP. Forty-seven percent say that these events have given them a less favorable impression of Republicans maintaining their majorities in Congress. Only 14 percent say they've given them a more favorable impression.
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While Republicans were already in a precarious position before the Foley scandal, Hart explains, it has become a final straw of sorts that might have sealed their fate. "It is the event that allowed certain voters to say, 'Enough.'"
McInturff adds that the scandal took Republicans by surprise, and he expects them to be able to regroup and spend the next three weeks trying to disqualify Democrats on taxes and social issues.
The war in Iraq also continues to be a drag on Republicans and the White House. In the poll, a whopping 68 percent say they feel less optimistic about how things are going there, compared with only 20 percent who feel more optimistic. That's a significant shift from June, when voters were evenly split on this question. 2006 key races
Control of Congress
All of these numbers seem to suggest that Democrats are poised to pick up a sizable number of seats in November, and maybe even regain control of Congress. Hart says it's been clear for the last several months that an electoral hurricane would be arriving on Election Day. The only question was how big it was going to be.
This new poll, he observes, signals that it will be a Category 4 or Category 5 storm. "Simply put, the low lying areas are [going to be] under water."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
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