New poll finds grim political environment with worries for both parties

Battleground Poll finds that most voters say Washington gridlock is America’s most pressing problem, as approval ratings for Congress hit single digits and President Obama's ratings trend down.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Celinda Lake (l.) and Ed Goeas speak at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters on Nov. 4 in Washington, DC.

The political environment is grim as the US heads into the 2013 elections on Tuesday, with voters saying Washington gridlock is the nation’s most pressing problem and with approval ratings for Congress and President Obama both trending down.

That is the view captured by the George Washington University Battleground Poll, a national survey of 1,011 registered likely voters conducted jointly by Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. Both strategists were guests at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters on Monday.

“It is the worst political environment we have seen in a long time,” says Mr. Goeas of the Tarrance Group, a Republican campaign consulting firm. He notes that the Battleground survey found that 73 percent of voters believe the country is on the wrong track.

According to those surveyed, “the No. 1 problem in the country is the dysfunction in Washington,” says Ms. Lake of Lake Research Partners. “That problem is rated higher now than jobs and the economy combined.” Some 26 percent of voters cited government gridlock as the most important problem versus 18 percent for the second-most-cited top problem – government spending and the budget deficit.

When voters are asked to rate the job Congress is doing, 87 percent say they disapprove versus just 9 percent who approve. “The thing that I think is most interesting is that people blame their own Congress person. For so long it was, yes, I blame Congress but not my member,” Lake says. In the Battleground survey conducted Oct. 27-31, 50 percent of those polled disapproved of how their own member of Congress was doing versus 39 percent who approved and 11 percent who were unsure.

Republicans in Congress had worse ratings than Democrats, the survey found. Some 65 percent of those polled had an unfavorable view of Republicans in Congress, while Democrats were viewed unfavorably by 53 percent. The government shutdown last month clearly played a role in those numbers, both strategists said.

“What I don’t know is how much of this data is driven by the shutdown or offset by what has happened in the last three weeks,” Goeas said, referring to the trouble-prone launch of the Affordable Care Act website and complaints that consumers are having health insurance policies canceled as a result of Obamacare coverage requirements.

In the poll taken almost a month after a government shutdown largely driven by the demands of tea party activists, only 54 percent of those polled said they had an unfavorable impression of the tea party – 11 points lower than the disapproval level for Republicans and a statistical dead heat with Democrats.

While Republicans in Congress have reason to be concerned about their standing, this latest poll also contains bad news for Mr. Obama. The president’s approval rating now stands at 44 percent, with 52 percent disapproving. Obama’s personal ratings are also down, with 47 percent of those surveyed saying they had a favorable view of him and 50 percent holding unfavorable views.

This is the first time in the Battleground survey that Obama has had both a majority unfavorable image and majority disapproval of his job performance, Goeas says. "The key question … is has Barack Obama lost the ability to lead in this country.”

Goeas said he had examined historical poll results and noted that, “In a second term of the White House, once a president’s numbers decline, they never come back up…. More importantly, what we see is that once a president loses the trust of the American people in the second term, they never gain it back.  And I think what is going on with health care right now has the potential of Barack Obama losing the trust of the American people.”

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