WASHINGTON - Americans are paying close attention to the lobbying scandal in the Capitol and say corruption in government will play a big role in their vote for Congress in November — more important than Social Security, taxes, abortion or immigration.
A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday signals a perilous year for incumbents. Views of whether most members of Congress and the respondents' own representatives deserve re-election have sunk to levels not seen since 1994, when Democrats lost control of both houses. (Related: Congress poll results)
Enthusiasm for Democrats is only slightly higher than for Republicans. A plurality predict both parties will be hurt equally by the inquiry into disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And Democrats' hopes of scoring big gains have been tempered by redistricting after the 2000 Census that made many House districts less competitive.
...a plurality of Americans say most members of Congress don't deserve re-election.
"I wouldn't foresee the tidal wave of '94 repeating itself — the system's incumbents are entrenched enough to avoid that," says Dennis Thompson, a political scientist at Harvard University who studies ethics issues. "But I think there could be a shift of control of one of the houses, possibly. Before this corruption scandal arose, that was less likely."
Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, calls it "a pessimistic electorate."
"If voters are looking for change then it's Republicans who have more to worry about, since they are the party in power," Walter says.
But she notes that Republicans also can "drive the train on legislation" to tighten rules on lobbyists and in the process distance themselves from the Abramoff scandal. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., promised on Sunday to "move forward aggressively and quickly" on a reform package.
In the survey, President Bush's job-approval rating was 43%, basically unchanged from last month. The poll of 1,003 adults has an error margin of +/-3 percentage points. (Related: Bush poll results)
Among the findings:
•Most Americans say they're following news of the Abramoff scandal closely, and 53% call it a major scandal. Just 9% see it as "not a serious matter." (Related: Abramoff poll results)
•Corruption will be a voting issue in November, they say. Only the war in Iraq, terrorism and health care are cited more often as "extremely important" issues this year; 43% describe "corruption in government" that way. In comparison, 38% call the economy an extremely important issue.
•Attitudes toward the Republican congressional leadership have soured. By 50%-40%, those surveyed say the policies proposed by Republican leaders in Congress would move the country in the wrong direction. That's by far the worst showing since the GOP took control more than a decade ago.
•Attitudes toward Democrats are better, but not by much. Respondents split 44%-43% when asked whether the policies proposed by Democratic leaders would move the country in the right direction. By 44%-32%, those surveyed say congressional Democrats would do a better job of dealing with the issue of corruption.
For the first time since 1994, a plurality of Americans say most members of Congress don't deserve re-election. The 42% who say most members do deserve re-election is the same as in the first USA TODAY survey of 1994.
Typically, voters feel more favorably about their own representatives than they do most members of Congress. That's still true — 60% say their representative deserve re-election — but that figure is the lowest since 1994, and almost the same as in the first poll taken that tumultuous year.
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