Heading into the home stretch

/ Source: National Journal

As Election Day nears, the fundamental dynamics of this cycle have not changed on either the national "macro" level or the "micro" level. Looking at the individual 435 House, 33 Senate and 36 gubernatorial races, this still looks to be a very ugly midterm election for the GOP.

Although this election is now down to the individual race level, it's still useful to look at the national poll data to make sure that the fundamental dynamics haven't changed. In the latest [PDF], taken Oct. 26 to 29 among 1,764 registered voters (MoE +/-2.3%), Democrats led Republicans in a generic ballot test by 13 points, 52 percent to 39 percent. This is not fundamentally different from the three weeks of combined polling since Oct. 5 to 8 among 4,291 registered voters (MoE +/- 1.5%) that shows the Democratic margin at 12 points, 50 percent to 38 percent.

When you narrow it down to the most likely voters -- based on who said they voted in 2004 and their interest in this election -- the Democratic margin balloons to 26 points, 61 percent to 35 percent. That's even wider than the 21-point margin, 57 percent to 36 percent, in the three combined weeks of polling. While no one expects Democrats to win the popular vote for the House by 21 or 26 percent, and even after knocking five points off of the Democratic percentage for their natural skew on these numbers, this still shows a very strong Democratic wave.

The fascinating thing in this newest poll, though, is only 32 percent of registered voters called themselves Democratic and 30 percent called themselves Republican. When respondents are pushed to say which party they lean to, the Democratic lead moves to 43 percent to 37 percent. But when you factored in who voted in 2004 and those who said they were most interested in this election, 51 percent said they were Democrats, or at least lean Democratic, and only 34 percent said they were lean Republicans, or leaned that way. This is a sign that Republicans are being interviewed in the polls but are falling out of the screens for likely voters.

The fortunes of individual Republican and Democratic nominees tick up and down a few points from day to day, but overall it seems more of a "one step forward-one step backward" process for the GOP. For the last week, while the Republican environment has not gotten appreciably worse, it remains very poor. As one GOP consultant put it recently, "there isn't a lot of good news out there, but the bad news is coming at a slower velocity." The only thing getting worse is the situation in Iraq, the source of perhaps 70 percent of President Bush's -- and his party's -- problems.

Complicating matters more is that in many Senate and some gubernatorial races, there are as many as three or four sets of tracking polls. For example, each of the two campaigns have a poll, and there's one for their national party committee or the independent expenditure effort for the party, meaning that there is a constant swirl of often conflicting numbers. It is not at all unusual to hear of two brand new polls, both by competent pollsters, sometimes of the same party, with one showing a lead of a point or two or three, the other showing a comparable deficit. Some are released publicly (if they say what the candidate or party wants people to hear), but most are not. It often is contradictory data and shows no clear direction as to which direction a race is going other than likely to be very close. In the Senate, this is particularly true. Go figure.

The Senate still looks likely to see a net loss for Republicans of at least four seats, putting the best case scenario for the GOP at a 51-49 seat majority, but a five-seat gain that would result in a 50-50 Senate with Vice President DickCheney breaking the tie, or a six-seat gain that would give Democrats a 51-49 seat majority is most likely. There remains an outside chance of a seven-seat, 52-48 Democratic majority.

Incumbents Mike DeWine in Ohio and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania still are facing seemingly insurmountable deficits. There is contradictory data on just how far behind Conrad Burns in Montana and Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island are, and whether they are in or out of striking distance of pulling off an upset re-election victory, but the odds still run against both. On the Democratic side, there are some polls, including independent polling, showing challenger Jim Pederson pulling within striking distance of incumbent Jon Kyl in Arizona, though GOP polling shows their candidate with a very stable lead that looks likely to hold. If the night is truly horrendous for the GOP, Kyl could lose, but it probably won't be that bad for them.

Then come the fun races, the really close ones, the ones that political aficionados over-analyze but at the end of the day are truly are too close to call. Republican incumbent Jim Talent in Missouri leads the list, and while I have long given his Virginia colleague George Allen the edge over James Webb, there is enough contradictory polling data in that race to convince me that the outcome is up in the air. The same applies to the Tennessee open-seat fight between Republican Bob Corker and Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr.. There are polls, all taken in the last five days, that show each ahead. What's the point of picking a winner in a race this close?

Does an African-American candidate, like Ford, face a hidden anti-black vote and have to be a certain number of points ahead going into Election Day in order to win? Maybe, it certainly was true in the 1980s and early 1990s in statewide contests in California, North Carolina and Virginia. Is it still true and if so, what is that number? At the same time, if GOP voters really are disillusioned, how far ahead in the polls does a Republican candidate need to be in order to be victorious on Election Day? Nobody knows the answers to this. Someone can hope or hypothesize, but nobody really knows.

In the House, it would take a miracle for the GOP to hold onto their majority. The losses look very likely to exceed 20 seats, and a 20- to 35-seat loss is most likely, but we would not be surprised for it to exceed 35 seats. The vulnerable GOP seats are there, the wave is there, maybe it happens, maybe it doesn't.

Republicans also face a tough road in governors' races. The GOP must defend 22 of the 36 seats up this year. It does not help that nine of those seats are open. At this point it would seem that Democrats will pick up the open seats in Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio. The contest for the open seat in Arkansas has gotten closer, but Democrats retain an advantage. The open seats in Nevada and Idaho are up for grabs. There are two GOP incumbent governors in trouble; Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota and Bob Ehrlich in Maryland.

While Democrats have four seats that are too close to call, the political climate would seem to put a thumb on the scale for them in most of these races: Govs. Jennifer Granholm in Michigan, Ted Kulongoski in Oregon and James Doyle in Wisconsin, as well as the open seat in Iowa.

Many have commented, quite correctly, that the biggest variables are turnout levels among independents and Republicans. If independents show up in their normal, relatively low midterm election levels, GOP losses will tend to run on the lower end of those ranges. But if there is a significant uptick in independent turnout, the losses could go much higher, as Democrats show huge leads among independents (20 points in some cases) in many races.

It is impossible to determine before an election what the turnout levels will be among the various groups. Polling has suggested that Democratic voters are extremely motivated while Republicans are more disillusioned than they were in 2002 and 2004, and anecdotally there certainly are reasons for Republican voters to be despondent, no matter what faction of the party they belong to. Some more conservative Republicans are upset about the president and Sen. John McCain's positions on immigration, others about Federal government spending and deficits, still others about the Mark Foley scandal. Others in the party focus more on stem cell research, Terri Schiavo and other issues. The broader issues of scandals and the Congress having not accomplished much in recent years cuts a broader swath.

While the president is different, the party is different and the issues are different, this is not too dissimilar to 1994 when voters were upset about tax increases, the Clinton health plan and the crime bill (read guns), others were upset about several years of congressional scandals, the House Bank and Post Office, Jim Wright, David Durenberger, the Keating Five and Tony Coelho, to name a few. Republican turnout soared, Democratic vote plummeted, and while some credit the GOP "Contract with America," that is largely revisionist thinking. At the time voters were angry with President Clinton, Democrats and Congress, and they wanted to send a message. They wanted to throw some people out of office.

National polling continues to show a wave of at least the same magnitude of 1994, looking at right direction/wrong track, Congress and presidential job approval and the generic congressional ballot test and maybe even worse. At the same time, it is certainly true that the playing field of competitive districts is smaller, though significantly bigger than 30, 60 or 90 days ago, the number of Republican retirements is lower than average and Democrats are running, though not by design, fewer battle-tested candidates with records of winning tough races. And it is also true that the GOP field organization, the "72-Hour Project," field tested in 2002 and put fully into place in 2004, is a phenomenal operation, but it will be severely tested with a party that, this year, seem considerably less enthusiastic than two and four years ago. And it is also true that the GOP national party has had more money than their Democratic counterparts, not necessarily each committee, but overall, though that gap is the narrowest in 20 years, undermining yet another traditional GOP advantage.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this election is that Republicans are having to fight and spend money in states and districts where few Democrats have dared tread in recent years, like in Idaho-01 (Butch Otter), Nebraska-03 (Tom Osborne) and Nevada-02 (Jim Gibbons). While this election started out as largely a fight in Northeastern and Midwestern suburban districts, the more recent additions to the competitive race lists have been disproportionately small town, rural and small cities, though not as many in the South but many in the West. These are districts that may have sent large numbers of their sons and daughters into Iraq, take a dimmer view of immigration, don't believe in deficits and are most disheartened by scandals. Out west, some Republican-voting conservatives who have a strong libertarian streak have grown uncomfortable with the direction of their party of late, with their "government should stay out of our lives" philosophy applying to social and cultural issues as well.

North, south, east or west, suburban, small town or rural, different voters are responding to different stimuli. And none of them good for the party in power.

For those who were not paying close attention to politics in 1994 or whose focus was on a single state or district, the concept of a 'wave election' is foreign and is radically different from the "all politics is local" elections of 1996-2004. For others whose sympathies lie with Republicans, it is difficult to deal with the possibility, or growing probability, of a profound rejection of their party -- that Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman could actually lose an election. For diehard Democrats, who are s so used to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, they are having a hard time seeing their party actually win a majority in the House for the first time in five elections.

The bottom line is that at this stage, Republicans should consider themselves lucky if their net losses stay in the 20-25 range in the House, four or five seats in the Senate, and between five and eight governorships. It would be a tough election, losing their majorities in the House and governorships, but it would fall short of the devastating losses that are possible. But the chances of this thing going bigger -- far bigger -- still exist, and there are quite a few veteran Republican strategists, people who have done tons of races in all kinds of states and districts for many years, who are bracing themselves for that distinct possibility.

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 cookreport@nationaljournal.com.