By Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Anthony Salvanto and Fred Backus
More than eight months before the November midterm elections, 42 percent of registered voters would pick a generic Republican for Congress, while 39 percent would back a generic Democrat if the midterm elections were being held today. Of course, national polls are not perfect predictors of congressional elections, since the conditions and state of the race in each individual district vary.
Among Republican voters, 86 percent say they would vote for the Republican candidate in their district. Eighty-five percent of Democrats similarly say they would support their party's candidate. Among voters who are independents, more express a preference for the Republican candidate in their district (43 percent) over the Democrat (27 percent).
The poll suggests that Americans remain disenchanted with both political parties.
Perceptions of the two parties have changed little in the past year: while more view the Democratic Party than the Republican Party in a positive light, majorities have a negative opinion of both parties.
And majorities think neither party has the same priorities for the country that they have themselves.
A Look Inside the Republican Party
While 41 percent of Republicans see their party's nominees as about right, a third thinks they are not conservative enough. Tea party Republicans, who make up 42 percent of Republicans, would pull their candidates further to the right; 50 percent say their party's candidates are not conservative enough. By comparison, 67 percent of Democrats think their candidates are about right.
The recent vote in Congress to raise the debt ceiling until next year finds disfavor among Republicans (69 percent disapprove), even more so among tea party Republicans (82 percent disapprove).
Americans disapprove of House Speaker John Boehner by a 2 to 1 margin - perhaps partly due to widespread dissatisfaction with Congress - but his own party's rank and file also disapprove (49 percent), as do just over half of tea party backers (52 percent).
While a majority of Republicans (and most tea party Republicans) are mostly hopeful about the future of the Republican Party, about four in 10 are mostly discouraged. Democrats are more positive; just 20 percent are mostly discouraged about their party, and 77 percent are mostly hopeful.
The poll asked about a number of issues: 70 percent of Republicans would like to see the health care law repealed, and while more than half are opposed to raising the minimum wage, 42 percent favor that. A majority think illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally in some way (including 36 percent who back citizenship), but 39 percent think they should be required to leave the country. Three in four Republicans would like abortion to be further restricted or not permitted at all.
But there are specific issues on which Republicans themselves disagree. Republicans under age 45 are far more likely than their older counterparts to think same sex marriage and marijuana should be legal. Younger Republicans are less likely to think Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs to taxpayers, and fewer think the U.S. should take a lead role in solving international conflicts.
There are also clear differences between tea party and non-tea party Republicans on some issues. Tea party Republicans are more likely to think same sex marriage should not be legal, to oppose raising the minimum wage, to want the 2010 health care law repealed, and to say deficit should be reduced with spending cuts only.
When it comes to their vote, there are some issues on which Republicans could be flexible and vote for a candidate who disagrees with them, but there are other issues on which they would draw the line.
Health care reform is a deal-breaker: only 27 percent would ever consider voting for a candidate who disagrees with them on that issue -- it even outranks abortion (42 percent) in that regard. Fewer than half would consider a candidate who parted with them on immigration (41 percent) or same-sex marriage (47 percent). But global warming isn't as critical (56 percent), nor is the minimum wage (59 percent).
The poll also asked Republicans about outreach to various voter groups, including those that the party has lost in recent years. Rank-and-file Republicans overwhelmingly (67 percent) say their party should do more to address the concerns of the middle class.
About a third of Republicans would like to see the party reach out further to women and Hispanics, but most Republicans say the party is doing enough to reach out to those groups already. Republicans are more apt to say the party should do more for gun owners (43 percent). Very few (18 percent) would have it do more for big business.
The poll finds some dissatisfaction with the Republican Party among a segment of the party's own rank and file. Although two in three have a favorable view of their party, 29 percent of Republicans hold an unfavorable view. Just 54 percent of non-tea party Republicans have a favorable opinion of their party; that percentage rises to 72 percent among tea party Republicans.
In contrast, 85 percent of Democrats feel favorably toward the Democratic Party.
Whatever their differences or dissatisfaction, Republicans' voting behavior shows strong party allegiance (the same is true for Democrats). Eighty-six percent intend to vote for the Republican candidate in their district for the House, and only 3 percent currently plan to vote Democratic. More than half of Republicans say they would consider voting for a Democrat - though in practice, exit polls routinely show that few actually do. In contrast, just 39 percent of Democrats would consider voting for a Republican for Congress.