- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Although presidents do not appear on the ballots for midterm elections, their approval ratings frequently play a major factor in how well their party colleagues do in these congressional elections.

In 1994, for example, Democratic prospects were hardly enhanced by the fact that Bill Clinton’s approval rating in the Gallup Poll bottomed out that year at 39 percent and hovered at 40 percent in September, two months before the Republicans’ electoral tidal wave crushed Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. Four years later, a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted a week before the 1998 midterm elections revealed that 65 percent approved of the way he was handling both his job and foreign policy, while 74 percent approved the way he was handling the economy. Those ratings helped Democrats gain five seats in the House, the first time the party occupying the White House gained House seats in a midterm election since 1934. In October 2002, according to the NYT/CBS News Poll, President Bush’s approval-disapproval ratings for his job were 62-28; for foreign policy, they were 54-34; and for the economy, they were 48-44. Those numbers helped Republicans surpass the 1998 Democratic feat; in 2002, the Republican Party gained six seats in the House and recaptured the Senate.

If a president’s job-approval rating is any guide, this year’s elections will be more like 1994 and earlier midterm elections, when the president’s party lost House seats, sometimes dozens and dozens. According to the latest polls by The Washington Post/ABC News, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News and USA Today/Gallup, President Bush’s job-approval rating averaged 39 percent; his approval rating for Iraq averaged 35 percent; for foreign policy, it was 36 percent; for the economy, the approval rating averaged 40 percent; and for terrorism, it was 47 percent.

The public’s views of the way the president is handling terrorism and the war in Iraq are especially instructive for two reasons. First, both issues played central roles in the 2002 midterm elections. The 2002 election, for example, was held shortly after Congress authorized the president to use force against Iraq and shortly before Congress established the Homeland Security Department, which was created in a lame-duck session after Republicans successfully campaigned on the issue. In October 2002, according to the Post/ABC News Poll, the public approved the president’s handling of Iraq by a 57-38 margin; the same poll showed a 74-23 approval margin for the president’s handling of the U.S. campaign against terrorism. The latest Post/ABC News Poll shows the public disapproving of the president’s handling of Iraq and terrorism by margins of 62-36 (Iraq) and 50-47 (terrorism).

In part because of Mr. Bush’s standing with voters, nonpartisan political handicapper Charlie Cook recently declared that “Bush’s numbers are consistent with a tidal wave.” Will voters in 2006 be beholden to history made in 1994?

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