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Republicans head toward midterm election in strong position to make House and Senate gains, but still lack the broad momentum needed for the sort of sweeping victories they achieved four years ago, according to a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll.
What benefits the GOP is deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the U.S. and with President Barack Obama. The paltry 25 percent who say the U.S. is headed in the right direction is the lowest before a midterm election since 1990, and Obama's approval rating remains low at 42 percent.
What blunts the GOP's ability to capitalize is that voters view the Republican Party negatively by nearly a two-to-one margin—significantly worse than the survey recorded for Democrats. The approval rating for Congress, at 12 percent, makes Mr. Obama's look robust. African-American and Latino voters have also begun a slight rally toward Mr. Obama as the election draws closer.
Mostly importantly, Republicans have not yet built on their advantages by consolidating support among independent voters, who flocked in recent "wave elections" toward Democrats in 2006 and Republicans in 2010. In fact, interest in the election among independents has actually dropped over the last two months. Just 35 percent report high interest in the campaign, down from 42 percent in August.
"The voters are falling into their established patterns," said Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who conducted the NBC-WSJ survey with his Republican counterpart Bill McInturff. Given historical trends in midterm elections, that suggests Republicans will keep and perhaps slightly expand their House majority, and gain ground on Democrats in the Senate.
But it remains far from certain that they will pick up the six seats they need to recapture control of the Senate. McInturff noted that the amount of money Democrats have spent on TV ads represent an indication that their mobilization and turnout operations might allow them "to be build a wall high enough to withstand the tide" against the president's party.
Also working against prospects for a landslide result is the diffusion of the issue agenda. In 2010, 36 percent of voters said their top issue was jobs and economic growth. It remains the top issue now but is named by just 23 percent—the same proportion naming "breaking the partisan gridlock in Washington." Another 12 percent cite the campaign against ISIL.
The two parties' turnout operations—a net benefit to Democrats in 2012—represent a critical variable again this year. Among all voters, the poll shows, Democrats led by 46 percent to 42 percent on which party should control Congress after November balloting. Among voters the survey deemed currently "likely" to turn out, Republicans led 46 percent to 44 percent.
The issue Republicans once predicted would be dominant—the new health care law—has failed to become the weapon they hoped for. Only 8 percent of voters named it as their top issue. And 55 percent of voters said they'd be more likely to vote for a candidate willing to give the law a chance to work with some changes, outpacing the 43 percent who prefer a candidate seeking the repeal the law and start over.
One unexpected drag on the president and his party is the conflict in Iraq and Syria with the Islamic State. Just 37 percent approve of Obama's handling of the matter, compared to 55 percent who disapprove.
When Obama began military action several weeks ago, McInturff noted that it gave him an opportunity to shore up his standing as a leader on foreign policy. That has not happened in a significant way.
While some elements of the Democratic coalition voice strengthened support for the president, other Democrats have reacted with dismay, while Republicans criticize the president for not doing enough. "He's getting it from both sides," McInturff said.
The NBC-WSJ poll of 1,000 registered voters, conducted by telephone from Oct. 8-12, carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.