I dread the last two weeks of every election cycle. Self doubt seeps in with every new poll release. Thoughts from two months ago seem silly now.
In trying to stay sane, I'm focusing on eight races (three Senate and five House) and learning everything I can about them. How these eight end up on Nov. 7 will tell us everything we need to know about this cycle from personality to demographics to issues.
My "Elite Eight" picks are: Missouri Senate, Tennessee Senate, Virginia Senate, Fla.-22, Ky.-03, Ohio-01, Conn.-02 and N.C.-11.
The Senate trio is an obvious pick because the party that wins two of those three is likely to control the chamber come January.
But I chose the five House races because they exemplify larger trends. Individually, they are interesting (albeit not necessarily the most hotly contested), but each represents a bigger part of the national story that is shaping this cycle.
Missouri: In a vacuum, Republican Sen. Jim Talent should be a slight favorite to win re-election, but the vacuum was destroyed months ago. Were statewide Democratic victories in 2000 an anomaly or is there a Democratic vote to turn out that can get Claire McCaskill (D) over the top?
Of all the Democratic challengers, no one has dealt with a bigger funding disparity than McCaskill. That could mean that if she's not dead yet, she can't be killed. Watch the suburban vote in Kansas City and St. Louis: Does enough of it turn blue to offset Talent's rural strength? In '02, many of us were writing off Democrat Jean Carnahan at this point in the campaign -- most polls had her down five points. But the Democratic turnout effort in the state made it a nail-biter. Was that Democratic surge about love for the Carnahans, or do Republicans have to have a five-point lead on Election Day to hold off the surge?
Tennessee: Of the three races in the Senate trio, this one seems the least likely to be nationalized. This race is about Democrat Harold Ford (Jr.) If an undecided voter believes this race is between Jr. and Republican Bob Corker, then Jr. probably will win that vote. But if an undecided voter is choosing between a Ford and Corker, then that person probably pulls the Republican lever.
Two regions to pay special attention to are the western part of the state and the Knoxville area. White, Democratic voters in the west who probably voted for Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) in '02 and Al Gore for president in 2000 may not be fans of the Memphis Ford machine. And while Knoxville is one of the oldest Republican strongholds in the South, it's more moderately Republican than other GOP breeding grounds in the region. Bredesen did surprisingly well there in '02, and Ford needs to overperform there in order to offset potential erosion in the west.
Virginia: As many longtime readers know, I've had to recuse myself from covering the ins and outs of this battle. So, forget the characters in this play a minute and focus on two geographical areas of the state -- Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Will enough Democrats show up in NOVA to offset Republican strongholds in Richmond and Roanoke? The corner of the state used to be competitive for the two parties, but now there is evidence suggesting that may not be the case.
Hampton Roads is the true "swing" area of the state. The candidate who carries that area probably wins, but there are a few caveats. What will black turnout be like? Will blacks make up more than 10 percent of the electorate or less? And if more, how much more? Also, how blue does NOVA become? So blue that it alters the normal turnout model of the state?
Fla.-22: What matters more in a contested House race -- local turnout clues indicating a Democratic surge in the district, or statewide turnout factors signaling the GOP is in better shape? Can national rage become localized? If it can, then Democrat Ron Klein probably knocks off veteran Republican Rep. Clay Shaw. And if that is the trend, then Democrats can win similar districts in places like New Mexico, Wisconsin, Washington and Nevada. But if the GOP's structural advantages are sound, then seats like Shaw's will stay red and the battle for control is a seat-by-seat struggle that favors the GOP to hold.
Ky.-03: So will there be a wave or not? And will the wave be the mirror image of the one the GOP rode in '94 to a 52-seat gain? While the Democrats, at best, are looking at a 30- to 35-seat ceiling, this Kentucky district should be monitored to see if the wave's crashing hard. The Democrats have a candidate in John Yarmuth who strategists inside the Beltway believe is probably unelectable in a normal environment. Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Anne Northup is one of the most battle-tested incumbents serving in Congress, but she still represents a left-leaning district. So in a tidal wave election, she loses. The beauty of spotlighting this race is that Kentucky counts its votes early, so we'll get a fairly early clue on Election Night.
Ohio-01: No election tapestry would be complete without an Ohio race this cycle. The reason to highlight this fight is because it's a district that was previously redrawn to make Republican Rep. Steve Chabot less vulnerable. It's also home to some of the most reliable GOP voters in the state. For Chabot to lose, GOP turnout has to be down a bit. And if it is down, it could indicate that the GOP is struggling to motivate its base. Other Republican-held seats in similar situations include two Democrats are targeting in Minnesota and three in California. Democrats need a depressed GOP base and amped up turnout among their own to win these six -- higher Democratic turnout alone won't do it.
Conn.-02: GOP success in '94 can be attributed to geography more than anything else. The party just cleaned up in the South. Well, for Democrats, if they simply started winning the congressional seats in the Northeast that their presidential candidates have carried in the last four elections, they'd be awfully close to getting the 15 seats needed for control.
No seat better exemplifies the Democrats' Northeast opportunities and difficulties than the one held by Rep. Rob Simmons (R). He's very good at voting in the interest of his district over his party. But is his party ID just too much of a problem for left-leaning, Pepperidge Farm, independent voters? Democrats' chances of holding a congressional majority in '08 are dependent on the party winning a lion's share of these Northeastern targets in '06. If Democrats don't pull many of these but still get the majority, it actually puts them in more peril in '08.
N.C.-11: Will ethics problems be the fireable offense that moves some voters in fairly Republican districts to elect a Democrat? If Republican Rep. Charlie Taylor can't survive this time against Democrat Heath Shuler, then it probably means the ethics problems have penetrated the voter psyche and could spell trouble for incumbents battling similar issues in places like Calif.-04, Calif.-11, Ohio-18, Fla.-16 and of course, Texas-22.
So if you are tired of trying to keep up with every new poll that comes out for 10 Senate races and another 60 House races, just concentrate on these eight contests to see the trends. Now, back to the roller-coaster ride already in progress.
Chuck Todd is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor and editor in chief of The Hotline. His e-mail address is .