If the tally bears this out a week from next Tuesday, Republican control of the House of Representatives could become a victim of the Iraq war. Voters rated the war and the economy as their top issues in the poll released Thursday.
Middle-class voters deserted the Democrats a dozen years ago, but the promise of their return is giving the party its best chance to reclaim the House of Representatives since the Republicans swept Democrats from power in 1994. The AP-AOL survey found voters leaning considerably more toward Democrats in the final weeks of the campaign.
Democrats need to gain 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate to control Congress. All 435 House seats and 33 in the 100-member Senate are up for election.
Early this month, Democrats had a 10 percentage-point advantage when voters were asked whether they would vote for the Democratic or Republican candidates in their congressional districts. The Democratic edge is now 19 percentage points.
The AP-AOL News telephone poll of 2,000 adults, 970 of whom are likely voters, was conducted by Ipsos Oct. 20-25.
Dismissing talk of a sour outlook for the Republicans, the House's leader, Speaker Dennis Hastert, cited signs of a strong economy and rejected on Thursday the Democratic argument that voters should fire him and his rank-and-file.
"Things are looking pretty good, and I don't think anybody would really want to change that at this time," he said.
In the minority, Democrats are arguing for a change in leadership and trying to tap into intense public anxiety about the Iraq war as well as discontent with Bush and the Republicans in charge of the House and Senate.
The 2006 election has been likened to 1994, when backlash against the controlling Democrats triggered a change in power and ushered in an era of new rulers, the Republicans.
Twelve years later, the tables appear poised to turn, in part because, as an AP analysis shows, fickle middle-class voters are returning to the Democratic Party after abandoning it in 1994.
Back then, middle-class voters — those earning less than $75,000 (euro59,000) a year and those who have graduated from high school or have some college education — fled the Democrats in droves, helping Republicans capture dozens of Democratic-held House seats to seize control for the first time in decades.
Democrats recovered some of that lost ground in the following years, but they never fully regained their grasp on the middle class. In the intervening elections such as this one, when the president was not on the ticket, Democrats and Republicans have split the House vote among middle-income and middle-education groups.
This fall, however, the AP-AOL News poll shows that Democrats have an advantage, in some cases in the double digits, among middle-class voters.
"I feel like the Republicans have forgotten the middle class," says Joseph Altland, 73, a retired teacher, who is a registered Republican but says he is considering becoming an independent. He bemoans rising insurance costs and utility bills. "The guys I golf with, we're in the middle class. We're getting hurt," he said.
A majority of middle-class voters now favor Democrats to control the House and say that Democrats best represent their most closely held beliefs. They trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle the situation in Iraq, which most of them view as a mistake. The war is this voting group's most important issue. The economy and health care are close behind.
Like voters of all stripes, the middle class is angry with Bush and congressional Republican leaders.
Democrats say the shift is not a surprise.
"We're the ones who understand the middle-class squeeze," said Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the head of the House Democrats' campaign effort. "Democrats are talking about middle-class tax cuts and Republicans are talking about staying the course."
But Congressman Phil English challenged that statement, saying: "Middle-class voters are no more likely to gravitate to the Democrats in any sustained way than chickens would embrace Colonel Sanders. The Republicans, however imperfectly, have done the better job of embracing middle-class needs."