WASHINGTON - Exactly two weeks until Election Day, Republicans remain poised to make significant midterm gains across the country, with 50 percent of likely voters preferring a GOP-controlled Congress, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
What's more, Republicans appear to be benefiting from the public's pessimistic mood, as approximately six in 10 registered voters think that the country is on the wrong track, and that the economy will get worse or stay the same in the next 12 months.
"Election Day is coming, the hurricane force has not diminished and it is going to hit the Democrats head on," said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
"It's hard to say that the Democrats are facing anything less than a Category 4 hurricane," Hart added.
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But the poll also provides some silver linings for Democrats — including a slight uptick in economic confidence and in President Obama's standing — that could give the party some hope it can limit Republican gains in next month's elections.
The GOP's 'likely' advantage
In the survey, 50 percent of likely voters say they prefer a Republican-controlled Congress, versus 43 percent who want Democrats in charge.
Last month, Republicans held a 46 percent to 43 percent advantage among likely voters on this question.
The GOP's current seven-point lead, McInturff observes, is on pace — historically — to result in a shift of power in Congress. "The Democrats, with two weeks left, are facing very, very difficult arithmetic."
Yet among the wider universe of registered voters, Democrats hold a two-point edge, 46 to 44 percent, which is up from the 44 percent to 44 percent tie in September.
But Hart calls that lead "hollow," because not all registered voters will participate, especially in a midterm election.
Indeed, among those expressing a high interest in voting this midterm season, Republicans hold a 13-point advantage on the generic ballot, 53 percent to 40 percent.
And among Tea Party supporters — who make up 35 percent of all likely voters in the poll — Republicans have a whopping 84 percent to 10 percent edge.
"Republicans are enthusiastically ready, willing and able to vote," Hart said.
Democrats' glimmers of hope
However, there are glimmers of hope for Democrats in the poll. For starters, President Barack Obama's numbers have improved slightly. His job-approval rating among registered voters stands at 47 percent, up one point from last month and three points from August.
In fact, that rating is better than George W. Bush's 38 percent in October 2006 (before Republicans lost control of Congress) and Bill Clinton's 46 percent in October 1994 (before Democrats lost power).
A plurality of registered voters — 35 percent — say their vote in November is a signal of support for the president, versus 34 percent who say it's a signal of opposition and 31 percent say it's not a signal either way.
In addition, a majority — 52 percent — believes their congressional representative is part of the solution rather than the problem, suggesting that the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington mood might not be as strong as originally believed.
And 37 percent say the economy will improve in the next 12 months, which is up five points from last month and 11 points from August. Twenty percent say it will get worse, and 41 percent say it will remain the same.
The political environment has slightly improved for Democrats, said Hart, the Democratic pollster.
"The question is — how much has it helped?"
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted of 1,000 registered voters from Oct. 14-18, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.