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There are glimmers of hope for Democrats in the poll. For starters, President Barack Obama's numbers have improved slightly.
By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 10/20/2010 8:04:06 AM ET 2010-10-20T12:04:06

Exactly two weeks until Election Day, Republicans remain poised to make significant midterm gains across the country, with 50 percent of likely voters preferring a GOP-controlled Congress, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

What's more, Republicans appear to be benefiting from the public's pessimistic mood, as approximately six in 10 registered voters think that the country is on the wrong track, and that the economy will get worse or stay the same in the next 12 months.

"Election Day is coming, the hurricane force has not diminished and it is going to hit the Democrats head on," said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

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"It's hard to say that the Democrats are facing anything less than a Category 4 hurricane," Hart added.

But the poll also provides some silver linings for Democrats — including a slight uptick in economic confidence and in President Obama's standing — that could give the party some hope it can limit Republican gains in next month's elections.

The GOP's 'likely' advantage
In the survey, 50 percent of likely voters say they prefer a Republican-controlled Congress, versus 43 percent who want Democrats in charge.

Last month, Republicans held a 46 percent to 43 percent advantage among likely voters on this question.

The GOP's current seven-point lead, McInturff observes, is on pace — historically — to result in a shift of power in Congress. "The Democrats, with two weeks left, are facing very, very difficult arithmetic."

Yet among the wider universe of registered voters, Democrats hold a two-point edge, 46 to 44 percent, which is up from the 44 percent to 44 percent tie in September.

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But Hart calls that lead "hollow," because not all registered voters will participate, especially in a midterm election.

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Indeed, among those expressing a high interest in voting this midterm season, Republicans hold a 13-point advantage on the generic ballot, 53 percent to 40 percent.

And among Tea Party supporters — who make up 35 percent of all likely voters in the poll — Republicans have a whopping 84 percent to 10 percent edge.

"Republicans are enthusiastically ready, willing and able to vote," Hart said.

Democrats' glimmers of hope
However, there are glimmers of hope for Democrats in the poll. For starters, President Barack Obama's numbers have improved slightly. His job-approval rating among registered voters stands at 47 percent, up one point from last month and three points from August.

In fact, that rating is better than George W. Bush's 38 percent in October 2006 (before Republicans lost control of Congress) and Bill Clinton's 46 percent in October 1994 (before Democrats lost power).

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A plurality of registered voters — 35 percent — say their vote in November is a signal of support for the president, versus 34 percent who say it's a signal of opposition and 31 percent say it's not a signal either way.

In addition, a majority — 52 percent — believes their congressional representative is part of the solution rather than the problem, suggesting that the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington mood might not be as strong as originally believed.

And 37 percent say the economy will improve in the next 12 months, which is up five points from last month and 11 points from August. Twenty percent say it will get worse, and 41 percent say it will remain the same.

Read the full poll results (.pdf)

The political environment has slightly improved for Democrats, said Hart, the Democratic pollster.

"The question is — how much has it helped?"

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted of 1,000 registered voters from Oct. 14-18, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Poll: GOP positioned for midterm gains

  1. Closed captioning of: Poll: GOP positioned for midterm gains

    >>> what's on the mind of voters with just 13 days to go until the midterm elections? we're going to get some insight into the new nbc news " wall street journal " poll.

    >> reporter: well, in this year of political frustration, candidates often add to that by ducking questions or sticking to attack lines and we saw more of that in a couple of key debates and voters are telling us where they think the country is going. election say is already here for voters able to cast early ballots in roughly two dozen states. those decisions locked in, while gloomy -- 59% told us the country is on the wrong track. when the president took office, 51% said government needed to do more, but today a flip. 50% say government is doing too much and that frustration plays out in key races like florida senate where marco rubio leads.

    >> from the stimulus package to the threats of tax increases to obama care, everything that has happened over there has made it harder not easier for jobs to be created.

    >> i think obama care was off the charts, was wrong, it taxed too much.

    >> reporter: on most issues, democratic congressman kendrick meek disagrees with rubio and cris.

    >> they're advocating is tax cuts for the superwealthy.

    >> reporter: turning to a senate fight in illinois.

    >> there's no debate that there's corruption in illinois.

    >> reporter: congressman mark firth was a top loan offer when he bank dealt with crime figures.

    >> well known convicted felons.

    >> mistakes are made and unfortunately there are people you wish you had never done business with.

    >> the state treasure you arer called out kirk who exaggerated about parts of his navy duty overseas. kirk claims he came under fire.

    >> why would you make all this stuff up? were you shot at or not.

    >> he criticized my navy record when he me --

    >> reporter: christine o'donnell is trailing democrat chris coons.

    >> one of these indefensible separations is the separation of church and state .

    >> he went on to state that creationism should not be taught in schools.

    >> where in the constitution is the separation of church and state ?

    >> reporter: and it gets a little bit more complicated because o'donnell, her campaign and other tea party candidates like sharon angle has argued that the specific phrase separation of church and state does not appear in the constitution and the idea as we know it today developed over time . regardless of those nuances, you can hear the reaction from students, many of them were law students in that audience, presenting another political moment for us to keep talking about.

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