Rising anxiety about the nation's direction and continued uncertainty about the economy appear to be strengthening the Democrats' position in the battle for control of Congress, a Los Angeles Times poll has found.
But with President Bush enjoying high approval ratings and nearly three-fifths of Americans indicating they are inclined to re-elect their Congress members, the poll points toward another closely fought election between two parties that finished the 2000 campaign in a dead heat.
Against that backdrop of broad partisan parity, the poll finds shifts in the landscape that could help Democrats. In the survey, the share of Americans dissatisfied with the country's overall direction increased sharply from earlier this year; that's usually a warning sign for the party holding the White House.
At the same time, more people pick Democrats than Republicans when asked which party can best handle the most important problem facing the country and which party they intend to support in November's congressional elections.
Democrats led 47 percent to 39 percent over the GOP when voters were asked which party they intend to back in November's congressional elections.
The key to the Democratic rise might be an underlying shift in the public's focus: More than twice as many Americans say the economy, rather than the war on terrorism, will be the most important issue in determining their vote for Congress. Democrats have opened a small 44 percent to 38 percent advantage on the critical measure of which party can do a better job handling the economy.
"It seems to me every time the country has been in a bad way economically, a Democratic administration has had to come in and bring the country out of it. I see the old pattern going on again," said Orville Ives, a retired utility contractor in Port Charlotte, Fla., who responded to the poll.
None of this guarantees that the Democrats will gain in November. The broad national measure of voter preference in congressional elections, for instance, has not always been a precise predictor of the outcome of individual House races.
Also, Bush's popularity could be an important asset for GOP candidates: 37 percent of those polled say they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who would help Bush implement his agenda, compared with 17 percent who say they would be less likely; 42 percent said it won't affect their vote.
"I think the way Bush has handled things has been just fine," said Cindy Cavitt, a traveling photographer from Coachella, Calif. "I'm usually more inclined to vote Republican, and I don't see any real reason to change."
The Times poll interviewed 1,372 adults nationwide Aug. 22-25. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
In the November elections, voters will select all 435 House members. Voters will also choose senators in 34 states and governors in 36. The election will determine control of the House, where the GOP has a six-seat edge, and the Senate, which the Democrats command by a single seat.
The poll suggests that the campaign will be fought out against a backdrop of resurfacing political divisions and sustained ambivalence about the economy.
From several angles, the poll finds that the wave of unity that washed away partisan differences after last September's terrorist attacks is receding. Indeed, the new survey finds the nation reverting to the polarized assessments about Bush's presidency evident before Sept. 11.
Bush continues to receive strong marks in many areas. Two-thirds say they approve of his overall job performance, and he receives good grades on handling the terrorist threat (74 percent), foreign policy (61 percent), the economy (56 percent) and even corporate fraud (55 percent). Only for his handling of the federal budget, which has fallen back into deficit after four years of surpluses, does the president fall below majority support, with 48 percent.
It's among self-described Democrats that Bush has suffered the largest erosion. Since February, his ratings with Democrats have dropped 13 percentage points for his handling of the economy, 17 points for his overall job performance and 27 points on foreign policy. Now 60 percent of Democrats give Bush failing marks on the economy and for his handling of the federal budget.
By 51 percent to 39 percent, a majority said they believed that an economic policy focused on reducing the federal deficit and paying down the national debt would be a more effective way to stimulate the economy than further tax cuts, as Bush is urging.
Partisan loyalties even appear to be shaping perceptions about the economy. Though the poll found that a majority of Democrats say the economy is doing poorly, nearly three-fourths of Republicans believe it is doing well. Republicans are also much more optimistic than Democrats that the economy will pick up during the next six months.
Still, economic concerns can be felt in other measures. About 45 percent of adults say the economy is either performing fairly badly or very badly. And on the most basic measure of public sentiment, just 45 percent of adults say the country is on the right track; an equal number say it is heading in the wrong direction.
That's a sharp jump from the 26 percent in February who said the country was moving in the wrong direction. In the new survey, those down on the country's course cited the economy more than any other reason for their dissatisfaction.
Typically, voters unhappy with the country's direction are more likely to support the party out of the White House. That pattern is apparently holding again.
Ronald Brownstein writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.