WASHINGTON – Americans with the strongest opinions about the country's most divisive issues are largely unhappy with how President Barack Obama is handling them, an ominous sign for Democrats hoping to retain control of Congress in the fall elections.
In nine of 15 issues examined in an Associated Press-GfK Poll this month, more Americans who expressed intense interest in a problem voiced strong opposition to Obama's work on it, including the economy, unemployment, federal deficits and terrorism. They were about evenly split over the president's efforts on five issues and strongly approved of his direction on just one: U.S. relationships with other countries.
In another danger sign for Democrats, most Americans extremely concerned about 10 of the issues say they will vote for the Republican candidate in their local House race. Only those highly interested in the environment lean toward the Democrats.
The findings are troubling for Democrats struggling to protect their House and Senate majorities on Election Day. They suggest that many of the most involved voters — those with the deepest feelings about issues high on the nation's agenda — are furious with the party in power and will take out their wrath at the polls.
"I'm going to vote Republican, and hope there's some kind of message sent to the administration that the public is unhappy with what's happened the first two years of the Obama administration," said Mark Milanese, 49, a building remodeler from Coatesville, Pa., who expressed strong disapproval for the president's approach to many major issues.
Congressional races often turn on local concerns and the candidates' character, factors that may yet sway many races this year. But many analysts think the public's widely sour mood — just 35 percent in the AP-GfK poll said the country is headed in the right direction — means this year's campaigns could be widely influenced by national issues, especially the economy.
"The economy is poor, we're muddling through in Afghanistan, we're not making much progress in the war on terror," said Paul Goren, a University of Minnesota political scientist who studies voting behavior. "Every once in a while national issues can intrude. It looks like there's a good chance this will be one of those elections."
To find people with the most intense views, the AP examined poll respondents who called an issue extremely important and compared those who strongly approved of Obama's handling of that matter with those who strongly disapproved.
By a 3-to-1 margin, more of these highly opinionated people strongly disapproved of the president's effort on the economy than strongly approved. More strongly disapproved of Obama's actions by a 2-to-1 ratio on unemployment, 2-1 on health care, 6-1 on the deficit and 2-1 on terrorism. His performance on Afghanistan, taxes, immigration and gas prices also drew strong disapproval.
Of the most frequently mentioned issues, the only one where most did not strongly disapprove of Obama's work was education, on which they were closely divided. They were also split over his handling of energy, Iraq, the environment and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Those with the strongest views represent a minority of the population, ranging from one in nine people to one in three people, depending on the specific issue. Even so, they could be disproportionately crucial because turnout in election years without a presidential race is usually light.
Kristin Nilsen, 42, a Democrat and small business owner from North Hampton, N.H., considers education a top-tier problem and expressed disappointment that Obama hasn't devoted more time to it. But she said the president had to focus on the economy "so people will have a roof over their heads," and said she would vote for Democratic congressional candidates anyway to try thwarting the GOP.
"Their agenda is really about taking down the administration," she said.
Predictably, Republicans with the strongest opinions were overwhelmingly critical of Obama on most issues, while the fiercest Democrats were usually solidly supportive.
In many instances, though, GOP sentiment was more decisive. For example, among Republicans calling the economy extremely important, 79 percent strongly disapproved of Obama's efforts on the issue and 1 percent strongly approved. The margin was much narrower among Democrats: 27 percent strongly approved while 16 percent strongly disapproved.
Looking at independents who considered an issue extremely or very important, more strongly disapproved than strongly approved of Obama's handling of 12 of the 15 issues. This included mostly negative views of Obama from independents on 10 of the 11 issues most frequently cited by people as important, including the economy, unemployment and health care.
The poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Aug. 11-16, using landline and cell phone interviews with 1,007 randomly chosen adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
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