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'Anger on their minds': NBC News poll finds sky-high interest and polarization ahead of midterms

80% of Democrats and Republicans believe the political opposition poses a threat that, if not stopped, will destroy America as we know it. 
Image: New Hampshire Holds Its Midterm Primary Election
A voter fills out a ballot at Bedford High School during the New Hampshire primary in Bedford on Sept. 13.Scott Eisen / Getty Images file

Less than three weeks before Election Day, voter interest has reached an all-time high for a midterm election, with a majority of registered voters saying this election is “more important” to them than past midterms. 

What’s more, 80% of Democrats and Republicans believe the political opposition poses a threat that, if not stopped, will destroy America as we know it. 

And two-thirds of reliable Democratic and Republican voters say they’d still support their party’s political candidate, even if that person had a moral failing that wasn’t consistent with their own values. 

Those are some of the major findings of a new national NBC News poll, which shows a competitive contest for November and offers positive signs for both parties. 

On Democrats' side, President Joe Biden’s approval rating remains steady at 45%, while congressional preference continues to be relatively even (with 47% of registered voters preferring Democrats to control Congress, versus 46% who want Republicans in charge) and “threats to democracy” are voters’ No. 1 issue for the third straight NBC News poll. 

For Republicans, the positive signs are that Biden’s approval among independents and swing-state voters is in the 30s and the low 40s, that the GOP once again holds the enthusiasm advantage and that Republicans lead in congressional preference among the smaller set of likely voters, 48% to 47%, although that’s well within the survey’s margin of error. 

Yet beyond the horse race numbers and the high interest in the election, what stands out in the poll is the bipartisan anger among Democratic and Republican voters when they are asked what one message they’d like to send with their votes. 

“Tell Biden to resign,” a male Republican respondent from Missouri said.

“Save this country,” said a female Republican from New York state.

“Democracy is in jeopardy,” said a male Democrat from Massachusetts.

“Don’t mess with reproductive rights,” said a female Democrat from California.

Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, who conducted the survey with Republican Bill McInturff and his team at Public Opinion Strategies, said: “We know that many voters will be casting ballots with anger on their minds. We just don’t know who which side will be angrier.” 

According to the poll, 47% of registered voters say they prefer Democrats to control Congress, while 46% want a Republican-controlled Congress — essentially unchanged from last month, when the parties were tied at 46%. 

Democrats enjoy some of their biggest advantages among Black voters (who prefer Democratic control of Congress by 74% to 13%), those ages 18-34 (60% to 30%), Latinos (57% to 30%) and women (50% to 43%). 

Republicans have the edge with white voters (55% to 40%), white voters without college degrees (61% to 33%) and men (49% to 43%). 

And the parties are tied among independents, at 40%. 

Among the voters the NBC News poll identifies as being “likely voters” — those either with high interest in voting or who have high modeled turnout scores — 48% prefer a Republican-controlled Congress, compared with 47% who want a Democratic-controlled Congress. 

It’s the first time this cycle the poll has measured likely voters. 

An 'eye-popper' in election interest

The poll also found 70% of all registered voters expressing high interest in the election — either a “9” or a “10” on a 10-point scale — the highest percentage ever in the survey for a midterm election at this point. 

“It’s an eye-popper” when you have a higher number now than in 2018, which set a turnout record for a midterm election, said McInturff, the GOP pollster. 

By party, however, 78% of Republicans have high interest in the midterms, compared with 69% of Democrats.

The 9-point GOP enthusiasm edge is up from September (when it was plus-3) and August (when it was plus-2). 

In addition, 57% of all voters say the congressional elections are more important to them than in past midterm elections — higher than the poll showed for 2018 (when it was 52%) or 2010 (44%). 

Thirty-seven percent say it’s equally as important as past midterms, and 6% say it’s less important. 

Yet once again, Republicans invest more importance in the coming midterms — with 68% of them saying the election is more important to them, compared with 53% of Democrats who say so. 

Biden’s approval, nation’s direction remain steady

In the poll, 45% of registered voters approve of Biden’s overall job performance, while 52% disapprove — unchanged from September. 

Biden’s job rating is in the same territory it was for other recent presidents whose party lost control of at least one chamber of Congress in their first midterm elections. 

In the October 2010 NBC News/WSJ poll, Barack Obama’s approval rating was 45% (when Democrats lost 63 House seats in the midterm election). And in early November 2018, Donald Trump’s approval was 46% (when the GOP lost 40 House seats). 

Looking at key demographic groups, Biden’s best ratings come among Black voters (70% approval), urban residents (61%), voters ages 18-34 (54%) and Latinos (51%). 

His approval is substantially lower among voters from swing states (41%), suburban women (40%) and independents (37%). 

Seventy-one percent of voters say the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared with 20% who say it’s on the right track. 

It’s the sixth time in the last seven NBC News polls that the wrong track answer has been higher than 70%.

“These are really difficult numbers for Democrats, and they have had them for months,” said McInturff, the Republican pollster. 

And 20% say the economy will get better over the next year and 26% say it will stay about the same, while 50% say it will get worse — the highest number on the question dating to 1994. 

A divided electorate

The NBC News poll shows just how polarized the electorate is.

Eighty-one percent of Democrats say they believe the Republican Party’s agenda poses a threat that, if it isn’t stopped, will destroy America as we know it. 

An almost identical share of Republicans — 79% — believe the same of the Democratic Party’s agenda. 

“It seems like voters are no longer looking for a ‘Contract with America.’ They want a divorce,” said Horwitt, the Democratic pollster. 

What’s more, when GOP voters who say they prefer Republicans to control Congress were asked what they would do if a GOP candidate they support were revealed to have a moral failure in their business, marriage or personal life, 67% said they would still vote for that candidate. 

By contrast, a combined 22% said they’d skip the race or vote for a Democrat or a third-party candidate.

When Democratic voters preferring a Democratic-controlled Congress were asked the same question, 63% said they would still vote for the Democratic candidate, while 26% said they wouldn’t — by skipping the race, voting for the GOP candidate or voting third-party. 

Other findings

  • 9% of registered voters say they’ve already voted in the midterms, 40% say they plan to vote early (either by mail or by early in-person voting), and 47% say they will vote at the polls on Election Day.
  • 77% say they are confident their votes will be counted early, compared with 19% who aren’t confident. 
  • And 60% say Biden won legitimately in 2020, compared with 33% (and 65% of Republicans) who say he didn’t. 

The NBC News poll was conducted Oct. 14-18 of 1,000 registered voters — 750 of whom were reached by cellphone — and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points. 

The margin of error among the 797 voters identified as likely voters is plus-minus 3.47 percentage points.