WASHINGTON — Middle-class voters who deserted the Democratic Party a dozen years ago are now giving the party its best chance to reclaim the House since the GOP swept Democrats from power in 1994.
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Motivated by anger at President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress, 56 percent of likely voters said they would vote on Nov. 7 to send a Democrat to the House and 37 percent said they would vote Republican. Voters in the latest Associated Press-AOL News poll rated Iraq and the economy as their top issues.
"I don't care if I vote for Happy the Clown, just so it's not who's there now," said Mary Nyilas, 51, an independent voter from Cologne, N.J., who said she would do everything she could to "vote against the powers that put us in this situation" in Iraq.
Widening the gap
Less than two weeks before voters elect a new Congress, the poll showed Republicans are in jeopardy of losing their grip on the House after a dozen years in power. The survey found voters leaning considerably more toward Democrats in the final weeks of the campaign. 2006 key races
In early October, Democrats had a 10 percentage-point advantage when voters were asked whether they would vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in their congressional district. The Democratic edge is now 19 percentage points.
The AP-AOL News telephone poll of 2,000 adults, 970 of whom are likely voters, was conducted by Ipsos Oct. 20-25.
Dismissing talk of a sour outlook for the GOP, House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Thursday cited signs of a strong economy and rejected the Democratic argument that voters should fire him and his rank-and-file.
"Things are looking pretty good, and I don't think anybody would really want to change that at this time," he said in Aurora, Ill.
In the minority, Democrats need to gain 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate to win control of Congress. They are arguing for a change in leadership and trying to tap into intense public anxiety about the Iraq war as well as discontent with Bush and the Republicans in charge of the House and Senate.
The Democratic Revolution?
The 2006 election has been likened to 1994, when backlash against the controlling party - then the Democrats - triggered a change in power and ushered in an era of new rulers - in that case, the Republicans.
Twelve years later, the tables appear poised to turn - in part because, as an AP analysis shows, fickle middle-class voters are returning to the Democratic Party after abandoning it in 1994.
Back then, middle-class voters - those earning less than $75,000 a year and those who have graduated high school or have some college education - fled the Democrats in droves, helping Republicans capture dozens of Democratic-held House seats to seize control for the first time in decades.
Democrats recovered some of that lost ground in the following years, but they never fully regained their grasp on the middle class. In the intervening midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans have split the House vote among middle-income and middle-education groups.
The forgotten middle class
This fall, however, the AP-AOL News poll shows that Democrats have an advantage - in some cases in the double digits - among middle-class voters.
"I feel like the Republicans have forgotten the middle class," says Joseph Altland, 73, a retired teacher in York, Pa., who is a registered Republican but says he's considering becoming an independent. He bemoans rising insurance costs and utility bills. "The guys I golf with, we're in the middle class. We're getting hurt."
A majority of middle-class voters now favor Democrats to control the House and say that Democrats best represent their most closely held beliefs. They trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle the situation in Iraq, which most of them view as a mistake. The war is this voting group's most important issue. The economy and health care are close behind.
Like voters of all stripes, the middle class is angry with Bush and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.
Democrats say the shift isn't a surprise.
"We're the ones who understand the middle-class squeeze," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the head of the House Democrats' campaign effort. "Democrats are talking about middle-class tax cuts and Republicans are talking about staying the course."
But Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., challenged that statement, saying: "Middle-class voters are no more likely to gravitate to the Democrats in any sustained way than chickens would embrace Colonel Sanders. The Republicans, however imperfectly, have done the better job of embracing middle-class needs."
Regardless of who is right, the overall picture looks bleak for Republicans.
"The country's in a big, big mess," lamented Cynthia Leininger, 44, a homemaker in Wilson, N.Y., who says she leans toward Democrats. "I'm looking for change."
Throughout the month, voters have grown increasingly angry at the Bush administration and Republican leadership in Congress.
Only 12 percent of likely voters say they are enthusiastic about the administration, while the percentage of those who say they are angry with it has grown to 40 percent from 32 percent in early October. As for the GOP-controlled Congress, 32 percent of likely voters call themselves angry, up from 28 percent.
"I just don't think things are going correctly in this country," said Shawn Miller, 47, a business owner in Burgettstown, Pa., who voted for Bush in 2004. "I think you ought to lay a lot of blame on Congress."
Most likely voters say it's difficult for them to get ahead financially these days. Among those people, Democrats have a 44 percentage-point edge.
The politics of Iraq, corruption
Democrats remain tied with Republicans on who would best protect the country, but Democrats have a 15 percentage-point advantage on which party would best handle the situation in Iraq.
On that front, nine in 10 likely voters call Iraq a very or extremely important issue to them personally, pushing that issue to the top of a list of topics voters care deeply about.
"I'm just not seeing a lot of progress," frets Kimberly Froeschner, 34, a GOP-leaning independent in Raleigh, N.C. She said she's grown frustrated with Iraq in the past year and feels "it's more about oil."
On other measures:
-Both Bush's job approval rating and Congress' job approval rating remain unchanged among likely voters from early October. The president's is at a dismal 38 percent while Congress' is even lower - 23 percent.
-Two-thirds of adults say the country is on the wrong track.
-Corruption and scandal have become less important to voters as October dragged on and news about the Mark Foley scandal dissipated. Forty-two percent of likely voters say corruption and scandal in Congress will be extremely important to their vote, down from 48 percent earlier this month.
-Iraq is viewed as a distraction from North Korea, according to 54 percent of likely voters, while 39 percent say the situation in Iraq has had no impact on the administration's ability to deal with North Korea.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points for all adults and 3 percentage points for likely voters.
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