GOP May Reap Rewards of Obama's Unpopularity in Midterms, Poll Finds

Image: Barack Obama

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party are facing difficult political headwinds less than eight months before November's midterm elections, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

  • Obama’s job-approval rating has dropped to a low point of 41 percent, never a good position for the party controlling the White House;
  • By a 33 percent to 24 percent margin, Americans say their vote will be to signal opposition to the president rather than to signal support, though 41 percent say their vote will have nothing to do about Obama;
  • Forty-eight percent of voters say they’re less likely to vote for a candidate who’s a solid supporter of the Obama administration, versus 26 percent who say they’re more likely to vote for that candidate;
  • And Republicans hold a one-point edge over Democrats on which party registered voters prefer to control Congress, 44 percent to 43 percent. While that’s within the poll’s margin of error, Republicans have traditionally fared well in elections when they’ve held a slight lead on this question.

“The wind is in our face,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “There is an advantage for Republicans right now.”

See the full NBC News/WSJ poll

Yet that advantage is due in part to the GOP-leaning 2014 landscape, where many of the top Senate contests will take place in states like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina – all of which Obama lost in 2012.

While the GOP might hold the early midterm edge, the public’s dissatisfaction with all of Washington’s political players could spell trouble for some Republicans, too.

Indeed, a majority of voters in the poll say they would vote to defeat their own representative to Congress and wish they could replace every sitting member if given the chance.

“What makes 2014 so different [from past cycles] is that the voters are in a rebellious state against the whole Congress and the establishment in Washington,” Yang adds. “Both parties are in jeopardy.”

Obama is ‘off the field as a Democratic positive’

According to the poll, 41 percent of Americans approve of President Obama’s overall job performance, while 54 percent disapprove – his worst job approval rating in the survey’s history.

An additional 41 percent approve of the president’s economic and foreign-policy handling.

Obama’s current standing isn’t far removed from former President George W. Bush’s position before the 2006 midterms, when Republicans lost control of the U.S. Senate and House: The March 2006 NBC/WSJ poll had Bush’s job-approval rating at 37 percent.

Some of the erosion in Obama’s numbers is coming from Democrats, with a record-high 20 percent of his party now disapproving of the president’s job performance.

“The president is being taken off the field as a Democratic positive,” says McInturff, the GOP pollster. “When you have the most powerful person in the world [on the sidelines], that’s a big deal.”

But Obama’s favorable/unfavorable numbers (41 percent/44 percent) in the poll are better than the Republican Party’s (27 percent/45 percent) and Tea Party’s (23 percent/41 percent).

See the full NBC News/WSJ poll

“For all the bad news for the president and the Democratic Party, if this were a beauty contest, the Republicans would not win any prize,” says Yang, the Democratic pollster.

A Tale of Two Districts: Red vs. Blue

So if Republicans are more unpopular than Obama, how do Republicans have the early midterm advantage?

Look no further than the 2014 playing field, with most of the top Senate contests taking place in GOP-friendly states. In fact, Republicans can win control of that chamber simply by winning six of the seven races in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia – as long as the party doesn’t lose a single Republican-held seat.

The poll shows a major difference between blue areas controlled by Democrats and red areas controlled by Republicans.

In congressional districts held by Republicans, Obama’s approval rating is a mere 33 percent; attitudes about the GOP aren’t as negative (30 percent favorable/41 percent unfavorable rating); and 50 percent are less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by the president.

By comparison, in districts held by Democrats, the president’s approval rating is 51 percent; the GOP’s favorable/unfavorable rating is significantly upside-down (23 percent/50 percent); and just 29 percent are less likely to vote for a candidate Obama has endorsed.

“There may be an anti-Democratic wave, but it is in GOP districts,” Yang says.

Most popular vs. least popular candidate characteristics

The poll also measures about two dozen characteristics for generic congressional candidates. The most popular:

  • Those willing to compromise and work with the other party (86 percent of voters are more likely to vote for them, versus 4 percent who are less likely);
  • Those committed to bringing federal dollars and projects to the local area (67 percent more likely, 9 percent less likely);
  • Those supporting cutting federal spending (67 percent more likely, 14 percent less likely);
  • Those supporting raising the federal minimum wage (58 percent more likely, 29 percent less likely);
  • And those not having previously held elective office (36 percent more likely, 17 percent less likely).

The least popular characteristics in congressional candidates:

  • Those supporting reductions in Social Security and Medicare benefits to address the budget deficit (69 percent less likely to vote for them, 17 percent more likely);
  • Those believing America should be doing more to try to resolve conflict around the world (47 percent less likely, 23 percent more likely);
  • Those who are solid supporters of the Obama administration (48 percent less likely, 26 percent more likely);
  • Those who support the Tea Party movement (43 percent less likely, 22 percent more likely);
  • And those endorsed by Obama (42 percent less likely, 22 percent more likely).

Health care: A jump ball

Strikingly, the poll finds that the health-care law is a jump ball as an issue when it is framed as a choice between fixing the law and repealing it.

Forty-eight percent of voters say they’re more likely to vote for a Democrat who supports fixing and keeping the health-care law, versus 47 percent who are more likely to back a Republican who favors repealing and eliminating the law.

See the full NBC News/WSJ poll

That said, the law remains unpopular: 35 percent of Americans view it as a good idea, while 49 percent say it’s a bad idea.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted of 1,000 adults (including 300 cell phone-only respondents) March 5-9, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.