A new Economist/YouGov/Polimetrix poll (conducted June 5-8, 2010), finds that Republicans hold a substantial edge on a number of policy issues with two key voter groups – seniors (age 65+) and independents – five months before this year’s midterm elections.

These results represent a significant shift from polling on similar survey questions in the last congressional election cycle.

Republican performance with both pivotal blocs ranged from mediocre to awful four years ago. The party’s weakness with independents and seniors helped Democrats capture the majority in the House and the Senate in 2006.

For example, Republicans and Democrats tied among seniors (49-49 percent), according to exit polls in the last midterm election. The GOP prevailed with this group by 6 points in the presidential race (52-46 percent) two years earlier.

The GOP’s decline among independents was even more dramatic. After losing these unaffiliated voters in congressional contests by a slim three point margin in 2004, the gap ballooned to an 18 point loss in 2006.

The landscape improved somewhat in the 2008 presidential race. John McCain actually beat Barack Obama by 8 points among seniors (53-45 percent), and narrowed the margin among independents (compared to the GOP's performance in 2006), losing by 8 points (52-44 percent), according to exit polls.

Democratic appeal on many important policy issues – like the economy, spending, and even taxes -- contributed to the party’s strong performance in these two elections.

During both the 2006 and 2008 cycles, polls consistently showed Republicans trailing when it came to “which party voters trusted to handle issues” or “which party voters felt closer to.”

A Rasmussen survey, for example, conducted right before the 2008 election found voters trusted Democrats more on 9 out of 10 issues on which they were surveyed (the two parties were tied on the tenth issue, national security).

The new YouGov/Polimetrix survey offers some encouragement for Republicans when it comes to both seniors and independents.

Overall, Democrats hold significant leads on only a handful of issues among the 1,000 adults surveyed who were asked, “Which party do you feel closer to?” They have double digit leads on two: environment (+12 points) and gay marriage (+13 points). Democrats hold smaller leads on abortion (+4 points ) and energy (+7 points).

The parties are statistically tied on three others: the economy, regulating business and health care.

Fighting to a draw among adults on the issue of health care after the last year’s debate is a moral victory of sorts for Republicans because Democrats hold a historical advantage on the issue.

Republicans hold a statistically significant advantage on government spending (+6 points), immigration (+8 points), terrorism (+10 points), national defense (+11 points), and gun control (+11 points).

Among seniors, however, the GOP margins widen on all of these issues. Republicans enjoy 30 point advantages on four issues: taxes, terrorism, immigration and national defense, a more than 20 point advantage on five others: abortion, gun control, health care, the economy and spending, and double digit lead on: energy, regulating business, and the environment.

Independents also lean more in the Republican direction on these questions. Republicans hold an advantage on 9 out of the same 13 questions.

Political strategists focus on seniors in off years because they represent an even larger share of the electorate in midterm contests. This is because the rate seniors drop off in turnout in congressional elections is less than younger voters.

One final note further reinforces the good news in these numbers for Republicans. The entire YouGov/Polimetrix sample are adults. The numbers would most likely improve even further for the GOP if the population were screened for likely voters.

I constructed the table below to compare the results for all adults, seniors and independents:

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