Critical parts of the coalition that delivered President Obama to the White House in 2008 and gave Democrats control of Congress in 2006 are switching their allegiance to the Republicans in the final phase of the midterm Congressional elections, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Republicans have wiped out the advantage held by Democrats in recent election cycles among women, Catholics, less affluent Americans and independents; all of those groups broke for Mr. Obama in 2008 and for congressional Democrats when they grabbed both chambers from the Republicans four years ago, according to exit polls.
The poll found that a greater proportion of women would choose Republicans over Democrats in House races than at any time since exit polls began tracking the breakdown in 1982.
The poll provides a pre-election day glimpse of a nation so politically disquieted and disappointed in its current trajectory that 57 percent of the registered voters surveyed said they were more willing to take a chance this year on a candidate with little previous political experience — and more than a quarter of them said they were even willing to back a candidate whose holds some views that “seem extreme.”
On the issue most driving the campaign, the economy, Republicans have erased the traditional advantage held by Democrats as the party seen as better able to create jobs, and by a wide margin Republicans continue to be seen as the party better able to reduce the federal budget deficit.
The public wants compromise from both sides. Yet for all of its general unhappiness, it does not seem to be offering any clear guidance for Mr. Obama and the incoming Congress – whoever controls it – on the big issues.
While almost nine in 10 respondents said they considered government spending to be an important issue, and more than half say they favor smaller government offering fewer services, there is no consensus on what programs should be cut. There was clear opposition to addressing one of the government’s biggest long-term challenges — the growing costs of paying Social Security benefits — by raising the retirement age or reducing benefits for future retirees. Support for one of Mr. Obama’s main economic proposals — raising taxes on income above $250,000 a year — has declined substantially over the course of this year. Though Republicans have managed to keep Democrats on the defensive over the health care plan they enacted earlier this year, the poll also shows Americans remain divided over Republican promises to repeal it – 45 percent say the law should stand and 41 percent say it should go.
The poll does not measure the strength of individual candidates in specific districts, where indeterminate factors like voter turnout and even weather can affect Election Day results. And, taken nationally Thursday through Tuesday with interviews of 1,173 adults, the poll did not ask about United States Senate contests, as 14 states do not have Senate races this year. (The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points).
But it does offer a clear indication of party strength at the end of what has been a particularly intense and hard-fought mid-term election season with more bad news than good for Mr. Obama and his party.
Overall, 46 percent of likely voters said they would vote for Republicans and 40 percent said they would support Democrats.
A higher percentage of Americans continue to have a more favorable opinion of the Democratic Party than of the Republican Party, with 46 percent favoring Democrats and 41 favoring Republicans. But the Republicans’ current favorability rating in The New York Times/CBS poll reflects its highest level since September, 2006.
However, disapproval of Congress remains near its highest level in the history of The Times/CBS poll – 76 percent of respondents disapproved, 14 percent approved and 10 percent expressed no opinion.
Mr. Obama’s approval rating remains below 50 percent – 43 percent among registered voters, which is about where former President Bill Clinton’s approval rating was in the 1994 midterm elections when Republicans swept control of the House and the Senate.
Yet nearly 60 percent of Americans are optimistic about his next two years in office and nearly 70 percent say the economic slump is just temporary. Half say the economy is where they expected it would be at this point, and less than 10 percent blame the administration for the state of the economy, leaving the onus on the administration of George W. Bush and Wall Street.
Still, Mr. Obama and the Democrats in Congress have their work cut out for them if they intend to rebuild the voting coalition that gave them their current positions at the levers of power, whatever the outcome on election day.
In the case of women, who Obama has been actively courting this fall, the shift toward the Republicans was especially marked in the latest poll, especially when compared to their stated preferences in the very last Times/CBS poll, in mid-September.
In that poll, women favored Democrats over Republicans by seven percentage points. In the latest poll, women say they are likely to vote to support a Republican over a Democrat by four percentage points, suggesting Republican gains among women who were undecided as of last month.
But the shift extended geographically, as well. Among poll respondents from the Western United States, more said they expected to vote for Republicans this year than said they expected to vote for Democrats; majorities of voters from those regions voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and for the Congressional Democrats in 2006, according to the exit polls taken in those elections.
The Democratic House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has clearly emerged as a political liability for her party in the latest Times/CBS poll. Overall, 43 percent of all respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Ms. Pelosi; 15 percent had a favorable opinion, and 40 percent said they had no opinion. The minority leader in the House who would likely become the speaker in the event of a Republican takeover, Representative John Boehner of Ohio, remains largely unknown. Three quarters of respondents said they had no opinion of him.
A plurality of registered voters, 42 percent, said they did not view their vote on Tuesday as a statement about Mr. Obama, who is not on the ballot. More than a quarter of them said they viewed their vote as being against him and slightly less than a quarter of them said they viewed their vote as a for him.
In a follow-up interview one poll respondent, Judy Berg, an independent from Morton Grove, Illinois, said she voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 because she was “looking for a change,” adding, “the change that ensued was not the change I was looking for but something totally out of left field.”
This year, Ms. Berg, a registered nurse, said she was leaning toward the Republicans because, “I’m pro life and I’m also looking at the immigration issues and the tax issues. I like the Republican agenda on these issues better than the Democratic agenda.”
Like several other national polls, the latest Times/CBS poll shows a considerable “enthusiasm” gap between Republicans and Democrats heading into Election Day. Six in 10 Republicans said they were more enthusiastic to vote this year than usual. Four in 10 Democrats said the same.
The poll includes indications that Republicans will have their own challenges should they gain control of one or both chambers of Congress with a new crop of representatives and Senators who identify with the Tea Party movement.
Half of Republican respondents identified in the survey as likely to vote said they were supporters of the Tea Party movement, which, though diffuse, has had success this year in arguing that Republicans have been too eager to choose compromise over principle.
Yet, when given the choice, 78 percent of respondents said they believed Republicans in Congress should compromise some of their positions to get things done and 15 percent said they should stick to their positions even if it means getting less done. Similar percentages said they wanted Democrats to choose compromise over principle.
Marina Stefan, Dalia Sussman and Marjorie Connelly contributed reporting.
This article, , first appeared in The New York Times.