A New Poll: The Democrats by 9 Points

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Senator Barack Obama, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi all hope voter dissatisfaction will help the Democrats regain control of Congress this fall

TIME's latest poll finds American voters heading into November's election dissatisfied with the Republican-dominated status quo, but not necessarily convinced that the answer lies in voting Democratic. The poll, conducted March 22-23, finds Americans unhappy with the performance of the Republican-controlled Congress — 39% approve, versus 49% who disapprove — and gives Democrats a 9-point lead when voters are asked to state which party's candidate they would choose for a House of Representatives seat (50% answered Democrat, 41% chose Republican). Voters favor Democratic control of Congress by 49% compared with 38% for Republican control.

But voter unhappiness over the Republican-controlled Congress and White House has not yet translated into a groundswell of support for the Democrats. Right now, the approval rating for Congressional Democrats is no higher (39%) than that of Republicans, and 56% of voters don't believe the Democrats offer a clear set of alternative policies. Nor will President Bush's dismal 39% approval rating necessarily drag down his party: almost half of voters (44%) were indifferent to whether their preferred Congressional candidate supports or opposes Bush.

Although the Democrats have a 14-point edge on the issue of dealing with corruption, one in three voters — including almost half of independents — says neither party has much to crow about on this issue. And one strong sign that a political earthquake is unlikely in November: almost two out of three respondents (63%) approved of the job their own congressional representative is doing.

At this stage, then, the Democrats' 9-point advantage in party preference may not be a reliable indicator of a shift in control of the House of Representatives. Democrats almost always trump Republicans on the generic party preference question in pre-election polling, but the voting day outcomes are often shaped by turnout. Indeed, the equivalent question in a spring 1994 Gallup survey gave the Democrats a 6-point lead — and that was the year of the Republican Revolution, in which Newt Gingrich's troops, armed with their Contract with America, gained control of both chambers of Congress.

Gingrich's Contract was a voter-friendly manifesto that tied together Republican advantages on themes as disparate as congressional ethics and tax policy into a manifesto for an electoral landslide. The Democrats may envy the former House Speaker's success in creating a winning narrative, given the large advantage they enjoy on issues such as rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, protecting Americans' rights, standing up to special interests and corruption, managing government spending and tax policy. Still, the Republicans retain an 11-point edge over the Democrats on the question of dealing with terrorism, while voters are evenly split on the question of which party would better handle the war in Iraq — issues that were key to the Republicans' success in the last two elections.