Washington (CNN) - With six months to go until November's midterm elections, new national polling suggests that Republicans have the edge over Democrats in the battle for Congress.
A USA Today/Pew Research Center survey indicates that the GOP's advantage is due in part to an uneven economic recovery, an unpopular national health care law, and President Barack Obama's lackluster standing among Americans.
And by a more than two-to-one margin, the public says they want the next president to pursue different polices than the current administration, according to the poll.
Battle for Congress
The according to the survey, released Monday, the Republicans have a 47%-43% edge over the Democrats among registered voters in the generic ballot, which asks respondents to choose between a Democrat or Republican in their congressional district without identifying the candidates. While the GOP's margin is within the survey's sampling error, any advantage is noteworthy, since Republicans normally perform better among the smaller pool of likely voters than the wider group of registered voters.
And the four-point edge is the GOP's best over the Democrats in USA Today and Pew Research polling in more than two decades.
The new survey is also the third straight poll to indicate the GOP with a slight edge (Fox News) or all tied up with the Democrats (ABC News/Washington Post) on the generic ballot question.
At this time four years ago, a CNN/ORC International poll indicated the Democrats and Republicans all tied up in the generic ballot. That November the GOP went on to win back the House of Representatives, thanks to an historic 63-seat pick up, and made a major dent in the Democrat's majority in the Senate.
One caveat: While the generic ballot question is one of the most commonly used indicators when it comes to the battle for Congress, the poll results often are a long way from predicting what will happen in November.
"The problem with interpreting the generic ballot is that a national poll cannot produce the same results that 435 separate polls in 435 House districts would produce," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "That's why analysts tend to look at other measures as well."
The Obama factor
One of those other indicators is the President's approval rating, which is considered one of the best gauges of a president's standing with Americans and of his clout with lawmakers here in Washington. And during a midterm election year, the approval rating is constantly under the national spotlight, as it's considered a key indicator of how the president's political party may fare on Election Day.
President Obama's numbers in the latest four non-partisan, live operator, national polls are nothing to brag about. His approval rating stands at 44% in the USA Today/Pew Research Center poll and in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, 41% in an ABC News/Washington Post poll, and 42% in the latest Gallup Daily Tracking poll.
Obama's approval rating is slightly better at this time in his presidency than his most recent predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, who was in the low to mid 30's in April of his sixth year in the White House. That November, the GOP lost control of both the House and the Senate in midterm contests.
While more than half questioned in the USA Today/Pew poll said the President is not a factor in their vote, more (26%) see their vote as a vote against Obama than in favor of the President (16%).
And Democrats seem to be less enthusiastic about Obama than they did four years ago at this time. Back then, in the spring of 2010, 47% of Democrats said their midterm vote would be an expression of support for the President. That's down to 31% now.
Obama joked this weekend about how his numbers could impact the midterm elections.
"Folks are saying that with my sagging poll numbers, my fellow Democrats don't really want me campaigning with them. And I don't think that's true – although I did notice the other day that Sasha needed a speaker at career day, and she invited Bill Clinton," the President said Saturday at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner.
The poll suggests that the President could also affect not only the 2014 contests, but the 2016 presidential election as well. By a 65%-30% margin, the public says they want the next president to offer different policies and programs than the current White House. That's close to the 70% who said the same thing in April 2006 about whom ever would get elected president in 2008.
Economic perceptions trump reality?
The nation's unemployment rate now stands at 6.3%, the lowest level since September 2008. But according to the latest polls (conducted before Friday's jobs report from the Labor Department), the positive news from Wall Street and Washington may not be resonating on Main Street. Many people just don't feel that good about things, and national polling indicates most people don't feel very optimistic about the economy and their personal plight.
Only a quarter of those questioned in the USA Today/Pew Research Center poll say economic conditions will better a year from now, with about half saying things will be pretty much the same and one in four saying things will be worse. And nearly two-thirds say jobs in their community are difficult to find.
Less than three in 10 questioned in the ABC News/Washington Post poll said they describe the economy as good or excellent, with more than seven in 10 saying economic conditions in the country are not so good or poor. And just 27% of Americans say the country's heading in the right direction, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, with more than six in 10 say the U.S. is on the wrong track.
"Because the recovery has been relatively modest, moderate in its strength, there's this psychology among people that it's just not getting better out in America," said CNN Chief Washington correspondent John King.
The economy remains the top issue on the minds of voters. Economic realities, as well as perceptions, will influence voters in 2014. The big question is whether those economic realities, and perceptions, will change between now and the November midterm elections.
Opposition to the Affordable Care Act, approved in spring 2010 when the Democrats controlled the Senate and the House, was a factor in the Republican wave that November. The GOP took back the House following a historic 63-seat pick up, and trimmed the Democratic majority in the Senate.
The federal health care law, better known as Obamacare, was also a major issue in Obama's 2012 re-election victory over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The Democrats picked up seats in the Senate and House in that election.
And polling indicates the measure will be in the spotlight again this election, as Republicans make their opposition to the law a centerpiece of their campaign. According to the USA Today/Pew Research poll, 55% say they disapprove of the law, with 41% giving the measure a thumbs up.
State of play
If there's any silver lining in the survey for the Democrats, this is it: Only 23% say they approve of the job GOP leaders in Congress are doing, nine points lower than the standing of Democratic congressional leaders.
But the survey also indicates that by a 53%-43% margin, those questioned say the issue of which party controls Congress will be a factor in their midterm vote. And those who say party control is important favor the Republicans over the Democrats.
The Democrats currently hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate. But the party's defending 21 of the 36 seats in play, with half of those Democratic-held seats in red or purple states.
In the House, Democrats need to pick up 17 GOP-held seats to win back control of the chamber, a feat political handicappers say is unlikely considering the shrinking number of competitive congressional districts.
The USA Today/Pew Research Center poll was conducted April 23-27, with 1,501 Americans (including 1,162 registered voters) questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.