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updated 7/31/2007 1:13:19 PM ET 2007-07-31T17:13:19
ANALYSIS

WASHINGTON — One fascinating aspect of this election is that many of the fundamental factors heavily favor Democrats in the presidential race. To a certain extent, this is true for the congressional blueprint as well. However, some of the specific circumstances point to a very competitive situation, particularly for the presidential race.

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The fundamentals are quite clear. Four out of five times in the post-World War II era, the party holding the White House for two consecutive terms failed in their attempt to win a third term. In 1960, 1968, 1976 and 2000, the party occupying the White House saw its string end with two terms. Only in 1988, after eight years under President Reagan (who had job approval ratings in the mid-fifties at the time), did the party in the White House win a third term. Obviously with President Bush’s approval rating averaging just 30 percent, approximately 25 points less than Reagan’s, the current situation does not seem to match that optimal Reagan scenario.

The second fundamental is that the Republican Party has lost ground. The controversial war in Iraq, scandals and Bush’s low job-approval ratings certainly have been major contributing factors. In 16 Gallup surveys conducted so far this year, an average of 33.1 percent identified themselves as Democrats compared with 28.1 percent who considered themselves Republicans. When the 37.8 percent who initially called themselves independents were asked which way they leaned, the Democratic advantage ballooned to 51.3 to 39.8 percent.

By comparison, for the whole year of 1992, when Democratic nominee Bill Clinton unseated Republican President George H.W. Bush, Democrats had a 5-point lead on initial party identification, 34.3 to 29.1 percent, with 36.7 percent identifying as independents. When leaners were included, the Democratic lead was 50.2 to 40.7 percent.

In 2000, when Vice President Al Gore lost the electoral vote but edged out George W. Bush in the popular vote, Democrats were up in the initial party identification, 34 percent to 30.4 percent, with 35.4 percent identifying as independents. When leaners were included, the Democratic advantage was 46.6 percent to 42.4 percent.

When President Bush was re-elected in 2004, the initial party split was less than 1 point, with 34.3 percent identifying as Republicans and 33.5 percent as Democrats. With leaners, Democrats had an edge, 47.8 percent to 45.4 percent.

Last year, when Democrats captured majorities of the House, Senate and governorships, 34.2 percent called themselves Democrats, 30.4 percent said they were Republicans and 33.9 percent were independents. Counting leaners, the Democratic advantage was 50.4 percent to 40.2 percent.

Reflecting all of the factors above, Democrats are clearly favored on both presidential and congressional generic ballot tests by wide margins.

That being the case, one might have expected the better-known Democratic presidential candidates to begin 2007 easily besting the better-known Republican presidential counterparts, right? Interestingly, though, using the general election averages of all of the major national polls posted by Pollster.com, the Republican candidates began the year ahead.

This is the case if one pitted former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., against any of the three leading Democrats—Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York or Barack Obama of Illinois or former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

But, looking at the Pollster.com general election matchup graphs, in each case the two GOP candidates began dropping against each of the four Democrats, with the red Republican line reaching and then crossing below the blue Democratic line. First, Obama and Edwards gained leads. Now Clinton, too, has moved ahead of McCain, 46 percent to 43.9 percent and also Giuliani, by a slight 45.4 percent to 45.1 percent difference.

All year Clinton, Edwards and Obama have each run well ahead of both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, but the awareness level among the broader public of these two Republicans is so low that it really isn’t a fair comparison.

Two conclusions might be drawn from all of this. First, the fundamentals are starting to rub off onto the specifics of the 2008 presidential contest. That cold wet blanket that has covered Bush and congressional Republicans is increasingly weighing down on their presidential contenders as well; the tarnishing of the GOP brand is continuing. The upward movement of Edwards and Obama and the corresponding downward movement of the GOP contenders show that. But, for the more controversial and polarizing Clinton, the lines are just now crossing.

This conforms with other data showing Clinton is growing less unacceptable to voters inside and outside her party as the campaign progresses. What started out as nearly 50 percent of voters saying that they would never vote for her has diminished.

Two recent polls show that number has declined to the mid-30s (no, I don’t buy either one), but I do suspect that it might have edged down from the 46-48 percent range.

My hunch is that this thing is going to end up quite close no matter what, but this pattern is worth noting and watching for clues.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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