WASHINGTON — Another week has gone by and little has changed. The Republican Party still seems to be headed toward a very tough election.
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In the House, Republicans are most likely to see a net loss of 20 to 35 seats, and with it their majority. In the Senate, the GOP could lose at least four, but a five- or six-seat loss is more likely. A six-seat change tips the chamber into Democratic hands.
Could the situation change? Could the trajectory of this election be altered if the spotlight shifts from Iraq, congressional scandals, budget deficits, Hurricane Katrina, Terri Schiavo, stem-cell research and immigration onto something else, like terrorism or national security? Of course it could. In the time it takes to read this article, something could happen. A confrontation at sea involving a freighter going into or coming out of North Korea, for example, could dominate the news and the public consciousness. But unless something of that magnitude happens, we have to go with the situation as it stands.
While some stick to the assumption that this is a normal political environment, that this election is an "all politics is local" election like 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004, they do so in the face of an enormous amount of polling data that demonstrates a horrendous political climate -- the kind that one sees periodically in midterm elections like 1958, 1966, 1974 and 1994, and even occasionally in presidential election years like 1932, 1964 and 1980.
2006 key racesSince 1994 is the most recent of these "wave" elections, when all politics is hardly local, compare the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted October 13-16 among 1,006 registered voters nationwide, with the comparable NBC/WSJ poll from October 1994. President Bill Clinton and the Democrats were in the hot seat, headed toward a 52-seat loss in the House and an eight-seat Senate defeat.
In the October 1994 NBC/WSJ poll, 39 percent of voters thought the country was headed in the right direction, compared with 48 percent who said it was on the wrong track -- a nine-point lead for wrong track. In the recent poll, just 26 percent said right direction and 61 percent said wrong track; a net difference of 35 points, significantly worse than 1994.
The October 1994 poll gave Clinton a job approval rating of 48 percent and a disapproval rating of 43 percent, a five-point difference. This month, just 38 percent approved of President Bush's performance compared to 57 percent who disapproved, a net disapproval of 19 points. Again, it's significantly worse than 1994.
In the poll taken 12 years ago, 24 percent approved of the job Congress was doing and 67 percent disapproved, a net disapproval of 43 points. In last week's poll, just 16 percent approved of Congress and a whopping 75 percent disapproved, a 59-point net disapproval.
At this point in 1994, the GOP had moved into a six-point lead in the generic congressional ballot test (44 percent to 38 percent). In the latest poll, the Democrats have a 15-point lead -- 52 percent to 37 percent. Once again, much worse than '94.
Finally, in October 1994, 39 percent said their congressman had performed well enough to deserve re-election compared with 49 percent who thought it was time to give a new person a chance -- a 10-point difference. In the new poll, the same 39 percent favored re-election, but the percentage preferring a new representative was a bit lower at 45 percent, a six-point difference and only marginally better for incumbents than 12 years ago.
In short, in four of the five diagnostic indicators, the situation is significantly worse for Republicans today than it was for Democrats in 1994. And in the remaining one, this year is marginally better.
Before anyone can erroneously draw the conclusion that this survey is just another mainstream/liberal media effort, the poll was supervised by designates from both the NBC News Political Unit and the political editor of the Wall Street Journal, collaborating with a top pollster from each party. The Democrat is Peter D. Hart, truly one of the deans of the political and Democratic polling communities. The Republican side was headed up by the late Robert Teeter, a true pioneer and leader in polling for the GOP. After Teeter passed away several years ago, Bill McInturff took over. McInturff is a senior partner in Public Opinion Strategies (R), the largest and most-respected survey research firm in the party, with the largest share of sitting senators, governors and House members. So this is hardly a poll that could be labeled slanted, and in fact is designed by two of the best practitioners on the planet.
Does this mean that Democrats are headed to victories of 52 or more seats in the House and eight or more seats in the Senate? Of course not. The number of vulnerable GOP House and Senate seats is smaller than the number Democrats faced in 1994, and the number of retirements this year is less than 12 years ago. But then again, no one is talking about a 52-seat House or eight-seat Senate gain for Democrats this year. In the House in fact, the halfway point between the 20- to 35-seat estimate mentioned above is 27.5 seats, just a bit over half of the 52 seats gained by the GOP in 1994.
Do Republicans have a financial advantage over Democrats in terms of national party spending? Yes, but that advantage is the narrowest its been in 20 years. The Sept. 30 cash-on-hand figures for the Republican National Committee and the GOP Senate and House campaign committees were just $10 million more than the Democratic National Committee and its Senate and House committees, $77 million to $67 million. The GOP spending advantage is there, but it's nothing like the 50- to 125-percent advantages that we have seen in previous elections.
Do Republicans, in their "72-hour program," have a superior get-out-the-vote operation compared with Democrats? No question. But the rule of thumb that campaign professionals have always used is that a strong GOTV operation is good for a point or two, certainly not much more than that. Having to pull out voters who are disillusioned by Iraq, scandals and other issues will be a challenge even for this exquisitely designed operation.
One way of looking at it is that the wave this year may be as big as or even bigger than in 1994, but there are fewer structures on and near the beach, and those that are in danger are made with somewhat sturdier construction than those in 1994, hence the likelihood of smaller losses. But smaller losses like 20 to 35 seats still would cost the GOP the House, and losses of five or six in the Senate put that chamber right at the tipping point.
At this stage, the Cook Political Report puts four GOP seats in the "Lean Democratic" column, and classifies 27 more as "Toss Ups." (Keep in mind that the almost ironclad, years-old policy of the Cook Political Report is to not rate unindicted incumbents worse than a Toss Up.) Another 17 GOP seats are in competitive races, but are still ahead by enough to warrant a "Lean Republican" rating, and then there are 18 more long-shot opportunities for Democrats, those rated in the "Likely Republican" column, leaving 166 as "Solid Republican." No Democratic seats remain in the Toss Up column, while seven are considered "Lean Democratic."
In the Senate, GOP incumbents Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine in Ohio remain distinct underdogs. Conrad Burns of Montana and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island also run consistently behind and face uphill struggles, but in most polls they are not nearly as far behind as Santorum and DeWine. In Missouri, incumbent Jim Talent is basically running even, while George Allen maintains a modest but consistent lead in Virginia. In the Tennessee Republican open seat, there has been a small but potentially important shift in momentum away from Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in favor of former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker , the GOP standard-bearer. Ford had maintained a small lead and a world-class campaign but stumbled a little bit recently, while the Corker campaign, for the first time in this general election campaign, is showing signs of life. The race is likely to remain very close, but there were no positive signs for the GOP until the last week or two -- now there are.
Will Republicans pick off a Democratic seat? Republicans continue to argue that Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow remains highly vulnerable and that Macomb County Sheriff Mike Bouchard is within single digits and showing signs of life. That seat looks to be a better shot for the GOP than the Cantwell race in Washington state or the open seat in Minnesota.
But the seat most recently considered the best GOP pickup opportunity has seen a bit of a reversal. Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr.'s momentum appears to have halted in the last week or two, with very real questions arising about whether Kean will have the funding to compete in the extraordinarily expensive New York City and Philadelphia media markets. Appointed Sen. Robert Menendez (D) remains plagued by ethical and legal allegations -- he clearly has problems -- but the inability of the GOP to commit the $5 million or so necessary to do the job could make the difference.
Could things change, as they did in early September when the pendulum swung from Iraq and scandals to terrorism, national security and appreciation for falling gasoline prices, only to swing back at the end of the month? Sure. But it has to swing, and that does not appear to have happened yet. Maybe it will, but maybe it won't.
Charlie Cook is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor, weekly columnist for National Journal magazine and the founder and publisher of the Cook Political Report. This column also runs in CongressDailyAM when Congress is in session. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.