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Democrats more vulnerable ahead of elections: NBC/WSJ poll

The decline in President Barack Obama's popularity has heightened the vulnerability of his fellow Democrats in this fall's congressional elections, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

The survey shows that just 41 percent of Americans approve of Obama's job performance, a record low for his time in the White House. An endorsement from the sixth-year presidential incumbent would make 42 percent of Americans less likely to vote for a congressional candidate, while it would make only 22 percent more likely to support a candidate.

(Read more: Obama 2014: Not your year (so far): Poll)

"The president's being taken off the field as a Democratic positive," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducts the NBC/WSJ poll with his Democratic counterpart Peter Hart. To maximize their chance at survival, "the Democrats are going to run under the Tip O'Neill mantra, 'All politics is local,'" Hart said.

The causes of the decline have grown familiar after a cascade of governmental turmoil in 2013. Fully 65 percent of Americans say the country is "on the wrong track." Despite economic growth that averaged 2.5 percent per quarter last year, 57 percent say they believe the country remains in a recession.

House Democrats walk on the Capitol building's steps.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
House Democrats walk on the Capitol building's steps.

Obama's support has softened with normally supportive constituencies. His approval rating among Democrats is now 74 percent, the lowest of his presidency.

More striking is his erosion among selected other groups, such as men and blue-collar whites. Just 23 percent of white Southerners approve of Obama's performance as president, below the level of 2010 when Democrats lost their House majority in midterm elections.

That's an ominous sign for Democrats in key races for the Senate, many of which take place in states Obama lost in the 2012 presidential election. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to regain a Senate majority.

More positive for Democrats in House races is the geographic segmentation of anti-Obama opinion, as well as Democratic advantages on some high-profile issues.

(Read more: Senate Dems pull all-nighter on climate change)

In House districts currently held by Democrats, Obama's approval rating is 51 percent—some 18 points higher than in Republican districts. That indicates a limit on the number of House seats at risk. So does the strong 58 percent majority who say they'd be more likely to back a candidate supporting a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour, a cause that Obama and Democrats are promoting in the face of Republican opposition.

In addition, the public's view of the Republican Party (27 percent positive, 45 percent negative) remains far more negative than its view of the Democratic Party (35 percent positive, 38 percent negative). The tea party is viewed negatively by 41 percent of Americans; 23 percent view it positively.

Overall, Americans are split evenly on whether they want Republicans or Democrats to control Congress after November. Fully 54 percent say they'd like to see every single member of Congress replaced—including their own representatives.

That sentiment helps explain why Republicans and Democrats recently agreed on a budget deal, lifting near-term spending and declaring a truce in their budget wars. An overwhelming 86 percent say they'd be more likely to support a congressional candidate who will compromise with the other party to get things done.

And despite the loud criticism of budget "earmarks" in recent years, 67 percent want a candidate committed to bringing federal dollars and projects to their local areas. In a long list of potential issues, the poll shows, the biggest drag on a candidate's appeal would be supporting reductions in Social Security and Medicare to deal with the budget deficit.

(Read more: White House forecasts more economic growth in 2014, 2015)

Other results explain why neither party advocates using military force to deal with the crisis involving Russia and Ukraine—even though 72 percent of Americans view Russia as an adversary and 63 percent hold a negative view of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A 45 percent plurality, the poll shows, would be more likely to support a candidate who wants America less involved in settling international conflicts.

Looking ahead to 2016 shows the divergent fortunes of two of the best known potential candidates. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's favorability ratings have ebbed since September, but she is still viewed positively by 44 percent of Americans; 34 percent view her negatively. But New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie has fallen precipitously since revelations over a traffic scandal. Viewed positively by more than 3 to 1 last year, he's now viewed negative by a 2 to 1 margin.

The NBC/WSJ poll of 1,000 adults, conducted by telephone March 5-9, carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.

—By CNBC's John Harwood. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJHarwood.

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