WASHINGTON – President Bush's approval ratings hit a series of new lows in an AP-Ipsos poll that also shows Republicans surrendering their advantage on national security — grim election-year news for a party struggling to stay in power.
Democratic leaders predicted they will seize control of one or both chambers of Congress in November. Republicans said they feared the worst unless the political landscape quickly changes.
"These numbers are scary. We've lost every advantage we've ever had," GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said. "The good news is Democrats don't have much of a plan. The bad news is they may not need one."
There is more at stake than the careers of GOP lawmakers. A Democratic-led Congress could bury the last vestiges of Bush's legislative agenda and subject the administration to high-profile investigations of the Iraq war, the CIA leak case, warrantless eavesdropping and other matters.
In the past two congressional elections, Republicans gained seats on the strength of Bush's popularity and a perception among voters that the GOP was stronger on national security than Democrats.
Those advantages are gone, according to a survey of 1,003 adults conducted this week for The Associated Press by Ipsos, an international polling firm.
• Just 36 percent of the public approves of Bush's job performance, his lowest-ever rating in AP-Ipsos polling. By contrast, the president's job approval rating was 47 percent among likely voters just before Election Day 2004 and a whopping 64 percent among registered voters in October 2002.
• Only 40 percent of the public approves of Bush's performance on foreign policy and the war on terror, another low-water mark for his presidency. That's down 9 points from a year ago. Just before the 2002 election, 64 percent of registered voters backed Bush on terror and foreign policy.
• Just 35 percent of the public approves of Bush's handling of Iraq, his lowest in AP-Ipsos polling.
"He's in over his head," said Diane Heller, 65, a Pleasant Valley, N.Y., real estate broker and independent voter.
As bad as Bush's numbers may be, Congress' are worse.
Just 30 percent of the public approves of the GOP-led Congress' job performance, and Republicans seem to be shouldering the blame.
By a 49-33 margin, the public favors Democrats over Republicans when asked which party should control Congress.
That 16-point Democratic advantage is the largest the party has enjoyed in AP-Ipsos polling.
On an issue the GOP has dominated for decades, Republicans are now locked in a tie with Democrats — 41 percent each — on the question of which party people trust to protect the country. Democrats made their biggest national security gains among young men, according to the AP-Ipsos poll, which had a 3 percentage point margin of error.
The public gives Democrats a slight edge on what party would best handle Iraq, a reversal from Election Day 2004.
"We're in an exceptionally challenging electoral environment," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a former GOP strategist. "We start off on a battlefield today that is tilted in their direction, and that's when you have to use the advantages you have."
Those include the presidential "bully pulpit" and the "structural, tactical advantages" built into the system, Cole said.
One of those advantages is a political map that is gerrymandered to put House incumbents in relatively safe districts, meaning Democrats have relatively few opportunities to pick up the 15 seats they need to gain control.
In the Senate, the Democrats need to pick up six seats.
"I think we will win the Congress," Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean said, breaking the unwritten rule against raising expectations.
"Everything is moving in our direction. If it keeps moving in our direction, it's very reasonable to say there will be a Democratic Senate and House," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Strategists in both parties say it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances for Democrats to seize control of Congress.
First, the elections would need to be nationalized. Democrats hope to do that with a burgeoning ethics scandal focused on relationships between GOP lobbyists and lawmakers.
Secondly, the public would need to be in a throw-the-bums-out mood. It's unclear whether that is the case, but 69 percent of Americans believes the nation is headed in the wrong direction — the largest percentage during the Bush presidency and up 13 points from a year ago.
Third, staunch GOP voters would need to stay home. Nobody can predict whether that will happen, but a growing number of Republicans disagree with their leaders in Washington about immigration, federal spending and other issues.
Bush's approval rating is down 12 points among Republicans since a year ago. Six-in-10 Republicans said they disapproved of the GOP-led Congress.
"I'd just as soon they shut (Congress) down for a few years," said Robert Hirsch, 72, a Republican-leaning voter in Chicago. "All they do is keep passing laws and figuring out ways to spend our money."