Less than two months until Election Day, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that more than half of registered voters disapprove of President Bush's job performance, even more disagree with his handling of Iraq and a strong plurality prefer a Congress controlled by the Democrats — all suggesting that Democrats are still poised to pick up seats in the upcoming midterms.
But the poll, which comes out more than a week after administration officials have made a series of speeches on terrorism and after gasoline prices have declined, also shows that Bush and the Republican Party have established a slightly stronger footing than they've held in months. Bush's job approval among registered voters is up two points — giving him his highest rating in the poll since November — and his handling of Iraq is up three, although both gains are within the margin of error.
Slight Bush uptick
"This is still a very difficult national environment" for Republicans, says GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. But he adds that this slight uptick is much better for them than no change at all.
According to the survey, 42 percent of registered voters approve of Bush's job — up from the 40 percent who said that in July's NBC/Journal poll. In addition, only 38 percent approve of his handling of Iraq, but that's an increase of three percentage points since that last poll.
Also in the poll, Democrats hold a nine-point advantage over Republicans (48 percent to 39 percent) in voters' preference of which party they want to control Congress. That finding is essentially unchanged from July, when Democrats held a 10-point edge over Republicans (48 percent to 38 percent).
The NBC/Journal poll was conducted of 1,009 registered voters from Sept. 8-11, and it has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points. It comes after several major events, including the news of the thwarted terrorist plot in London, the end of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the buildup to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
GOP’s return to national security
Some of these events — especially the 9/11 anniversary and the administration's recent series of speeches on national security and terrorism leading into it — have touched on the very issues that benefited Republicans in the 2002 and 2004 elections. "You're a heck of a lot better fighting ... when you're on comfortable terrain," says McInturff, the Republican pollster.
But what Hart, his Democratic counterpart, finds striking is how little the environment has changed after these events. "For all that has happened, the needle has moved ever so slightly and probably within the margin of error," Hart says.
The violence in Iraq, however, continues to be a problem for the Bush administration and the Republican-led Congress. In the poll, 57 percent of registered voters say they feel less confident that the war there will come to a successful conclusion. That's essentially unchanged from July, when 58 percent said this.
Moreover, 61 percent believe Bush's recent comparison of the Iraq war to the fight against the Nazis and fascism during World War II was inappropriate and was made only to justify his policies in Iraq.
One thing that may help Republicans as the midterm elections approach is the declining cost of gasoline. Back in July, 41 percent of registered voters said gas prices was the most important economic issue facing the country. But now, just 26 percent say this, although it still remains voters' top economic concern.
If Democrats have a weakness heading into the midterms, it's that many voters don't believe they have plans to deal with the problems facing the country. Asked what concerns them more — that they believe Democrats have no plans or that Republicans have offered no changes in dealing with the nation's problems — 42 percent of registered voters said that Democrats having no plans was the bigger concern, while 37 percent said the GOP offering no changes was. "The national Democrat Party has not made itself an option yet," McInturff notes.
But that might not be a problem if the elections turn into a referendum on Bush. According to the poll, 37 percent say their vote will be a signal of opposition to the president, compared with just 25 percent who say it will be a signal of support. Thirty-six percent say it won't have anything to do with Bush.
So whom will the midterms be more about — Bush or the Democrats? And what issue will play the bigger role —Iraq or terrorism?
The answers, Hart says, could determine the size of the wave Democrats will be riding in November. "It's going to be a hurricane. What's yet to be determined is whether it's Category 1, Category 3 or Category 5 in terms of severity."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.