With congressional midterm elections less than four months away, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that candidates will be facing a public that has grown increasingly pessimistic, as nearly two-thirds don't believe life for their children's generation will be better than it has been for them, and nearly 60 percent are doubtful the Iraq war will come to a successful conclusion.
And there's more pessimism: Among those who believe the nation is headed on the wrong track, more than 80 percent say it's part of a longer-term decline.
"This is just a horrendous set of numbers," says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican Bill McInturff. The mood is "as dank and depressing as I have seen."
According to the poll, 65 percent say they feel less confident that life for their children's generation will be better than it was for them. In December 2001, the last time this question was asked, respondents — by a 49-42 percent margin — said they were confident life would be better for their children.
In addition, only 27 percent think the country is headed in the right direction, while 58 percent say they are less confident the Iraq war will come to a successful conclusion.
And among those who believe that the nation is headed on the wrong track, a whopping 81 percent believe it's part of a longer-term decline and that things won't get better for some time. Just 12 percent think the problems are short-term blips.
War concerns deepen
The NBC/Journal poll — which was conducted from July 21-24 of 1,010 adults, and which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — comes amid a new wave of escalated violence in Iraq. Just Tuesday, President Bush announced that the United States would strengthen the U.S. presence in Baghdad by moving additional soldiers to the city.
The poll also comes as Israel battles the group Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the survey, 45 percent approve of Bush's handling of that conflict, while 39 percent disapprove. Moreover, regarding the recent violence there, 54 percent of respondents say they sympathize more with Israel, while just 11 percent side with Arab countries.
Fifty-three percent believe that the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah will likely lead to a major Middle East war involving other countries. Just 34 percent think a major war is unlikely.
Yet perhaps the most revealing finding in the poll is how little the political environment has changed in the past year. For the eighth straight survey since October 2005, President Bush's job approval rating sits below 40 percent; for the fourth straight time since March, just a third approve of his handling of Iraq; and also for a fourth straight time since March, only a quarter believe the nation is headed in the right direction.
Fall election effect
And this isn't good news for Bush and the Republican Party, say the pollsters who conducted this survey, because it means that — outside of an extraordinary event — the political environment is pretty much locked in as we head into the November elections.
"I feel like Republicans are in a barrel and headed toward Niagara Falls," says Hart. "It's ... a python-like grip in terms of a negative mood. This is wrapped pretty tight.
McInturff, the Republican pollster, adds that GOP candidates can count on having plenty of money and a proven get-out-the-vote operation. "But they are going to have to run very aggressive campaigns at an individual level to separate themselves from the national environment."
In fact, McInturff says, Republican incumbents who wait until the fall to begin engaging their Democratic opponents will be "rolling the wrong dice." "The national mood is too set and there is not enough time."
According to the poll — which was partially released Wednesday night on NBC's "Nightly News" while more comes out in Thursday's Wall Street Journal — Bush's job approval rating is at 39 percent, up two points from the last survey in June (but still within the margin of error). And just 34 percent approve of the president's handling of Iraq.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.