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The Intensity Factor

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I feel compelled to report the latest signs that Republicans ought to be very worried about this fall's congressional elections.

A Gallup Poll this week showed President Bush with a job-approval rating of just 36 percent -- tying his previous low -- and a disapproval rating of 59 percent. A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg News poll was only slightly better for the president -- 39 percent approval, 57 percent disapproval.

The new Gallup Poll pegged the approval rating of the Republican-controlled Congress at a dismal 23 percent, down 4 points from a month ago. Seventy percent of respondents told Gallup they disapprove of Congress's performance. And in the Gallup variation on the right direction/wrong track question, just 27 percent of Americans said they are satisfied with the direction of the country; 71 percent are dissatisfied.

But most of the talk in political circles over the past week has been about the intensity of opposition to Bush. What sparked this chatter was a front-page Washington Post story exploring Republican strategists' worries about voter turnout -- concerns linked to Bush's ratings.

That article pointed to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, which indicated that 47 percent of voters "strongly disapprove" of Bush's job performance while only 20 percent "strongly approve."

The story went on to say, "In the recent past, this perennial truism of politics -- emotion equals turnout -- has worked more to the Republican advantage. Several weeks before the 2002 midterm elections, Bush had 42 percent of voters strongly approving of him, compared with 18 percent in strong opposition. Democrats were stunned on Election Night when Republicans defied historical patterns and made gains in the House and Senate."

Other polls also show that intense opposition to Bush now very much outweighs intense support. An Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs poll taken early this month found that 42 percent of adults strongly disapproved of the president and only 18 percent strongly approved. A Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll produced much the same result just days later -- 43 percent strongly disapproved; 18 percent strongly approved. Likewise, a March survey by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research: 45 percent of registered voters strongly disapproved, and 23 percent strongly approved.

After I noted this "upside down" intensity problem in a recent column, a reader asked whether there is any meaningful relationship between presidential approval ratings and midterm election voting.

Well, yes, a significant connection does exist between a president's standing with the public and the outcome of midterm balloting.

Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz discovered a remarkable pattern when he examined midterm data from 1982 to 2002 collected by the National Election Study: 72 percent of voters who strongly approved of the performance of a president voted for the president's party in the midterm election, but only 49 percent of those who weakly approved of a president's performance voted for his party's congressional candidates.

Among those who weakly disapproved of a president, 70 percent voted in the midterm for a candidate of the opposing party; a whopping 85 percent of those who strongly disapproved of a president voted for the opposing party.

These findings indicate that disapproval of a president is a much stronger driver of voters' midterm election decisions than approval is. And intensity -- whether intense approval or intense disapproval -- matters a great deal.

With more than 40 percent of voters strongly disapproving of Bush's performance, Democrats have quite a good chance of scoring a net gain of two to five Senate seats. The six-seat gain needed to take control still seems a bit out of reach. But in the House, while the odds of a takeover might not yet be 50-50, the trend line surely seems headed that way. Will anything stop the GOP's downhill slide?

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