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Never a dull moment as 2006 ends

This past week has been about Senate control, a House runoff and 2008 presidential politics. That is a lot for what is normally an extremely slow, pre-holiday time of year.   By Charlie Cook, National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

This past week has been about Senate control, a House runoff and 2008 presidential politics. That is a lot for what is normally an extremely slow, pre-holiday time of year.

The hospitalization of Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., last week should serve as yet another reminder of the fragility of the Democratic Senate majority. It should also serve as a strong argument for why Senate Democrats should treat the GOP minority with delicacy and some degree of respect. The shoe could easily be on the other foot, and the Senate could switch control again -- just as we've seen in that chamber three times in the last five years.

While we haven't seen any Senate majority run as rough-shod over a minority as badly as we saw Democrats treat House Republicans in the late 80's and early 90's or the way Republicans have returned the favor in that chamber since 1995, Democrats would be well-advised to follow the Golden Rule, just out of sheer pragmatism, if for no other reason.

In the House, prior to the runoff in Texas' 23rd Congressional District, one of the San Antonio newspapers suggested the outcome would either be a period or an exclamation point for the 2006 midterm elections. A victory by GOP incumbent Henry Bonilla would've put a hold on this bad year for his party, and could have, to some small degree, tapped down some of despondency and pessimistic appraisals within the ranks. But Bonilla's loss to former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) capped the year with an exclamation mark, ending the awful Republican year with emphasis and bringing party losses to a not-so-nice round number of 30 House seats. It also underscored the damage to the GOP brand, particularly among Hispanics angered at what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant bashing among some quarters of the party.

If Republicans don't increase their performance among either Hispanics, the fastest growing minority in the country, or among African Americans (neither happened this year), then they will have to perform much better among white voters simply to replicate their presidential victories of 2000 and 2004 and get their majorities back. Simply put, this Texas loss just added insult to injury for the GOP and gave party strategists even more to worry about as they look forward to 2008.

The decision by a second centrist-Democratic presidential contender, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, to withdraw from the presidential race comes less than two months after former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's departure from the ranks of potential contenders. Both Bayh's and Warner's decisions are a reminder of how Darwinian this process has become, and the increasing possibility of Sen. Barack Obama's entry into this race serves a warning to other potential contenders that this contest for the Democratic nomination could come down to a two-way contest between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, or possibly a three-way with a former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

While it is far from certain that Obama will run, it is easy to see how a race with Clinton and Obama could possibly eclipse all other contenders, both in terms of media coverage and money. Certainly it would make it very hard for one of the lesser known candidates to break through. In a Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll taken November 9-12 among 728 Democratic voters, Clinton had 39 percent of the vote and Obama took 21 percent, for a combined 60 percent, and Edwards ran third with 11 percent, for a total of 71 percent. That didn't leave much room for Senators Bayh (this was taken before his departure from the race), Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and John Kerry, Governors Bill Richardson and Tom Vilsack and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, all of whom had six percent or less (some much less).

In terms of money and fundraising, some estimate that it will require at least $300 million to secure either party's nomination, and some estimates go considerably higher than that. How many key fundraisers and big donors will the long-shot candidates be able to get on board if the contest is dominated by two or three political whales? With vigorous fights inevitable for both parties' nominations, the competition for news coverage will be fierce, and it's easy to see how a very able candidate who simply isn't well known could get completely lost in the shuffle. How many TV crews will each of the networks commit to each side's nomination fights in an era of tighter network news budgets? And with major newspapers and chains, some candidates will get "man-to-man" coverage, dedicated reporters to their campaigns, while others might just get an occasional visit. How do they break through?

Should Obama not run, this would be a completely different contest. We'd probably see a spirited run by the remaining contenders, jockeying with each other to become the alternative to Clinton. Of course, a late decision by Obama would hurt the lesser known candidates in their ability to break through, but an early decision by the Illinois senator would give them at least a chance to build up some steam. In an Obama-less scenario, it would be inevitable that one would emerge as the alternative, and a case can be made for virtually any of the contenders (with the exception of Kerry, whose negatives are so high that it would seem almost impossible for him to win a nomination unless everyone else dropped out). Former Vice President Al Gore, meanwhile, would probably love to have the Democratic nomination, if it were offered on a silver platter.

With Clinton routinely getting favorable ratings in the 70 to 80 percent range among Democrats, the most important challenge for her is to convince her own party members that she can win a general election. With favorable ratings that high among party members, there would have to be a pretty good reason for them not to nominate her, but today, electability is going to be a huge factor, a very important dynamic in both parties' nomination contests and far more important than it was in the old days.

Clinton's challenge in convincing the party that she can win was real. In four polls this year, the Cook Political Report/RT Strategies survey tested that question among Democratic voters, asking respondents if they were "worried that she cannot win the election for President," or if they thought she would have "as good a chance as any Democratic nominee to be elected President."

In February, 47 percent of Democrats thought Clinton would have as good a chance as any other Democrat, and 46 percent worried that she couldn't win a general election. In August, the numbers were very similar, though reversed; 49 percent worried that she couldn't win a general election, and 46 percent said that she would have a good a chance as any.

But in that November 9-12 Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll, those "worried" she couldn't win dropped from the 46 percent in February and 49 percent in August all the way down to 36 percent, while the "would have as good a chance as any" responses rose from 47 percent in February and 46 percent in August up to 60 percent. Was this a fluke, a statistical anomaly or a temporary situation? We tested it again in a survey conducted this past weekend, December 14-17. Among 353 Democratic voters, the numbers were almost identical: 33 percent worried that she couldn't win a general, three points lower than in November, and 60 percent said she would have as good a chance as any, same as a month before.

While there is some evidence in this and other polls that Clinton has helped her standing in many ways, perhaps the best explanation for this is that after losing two consecutive presidential elections and suffering both House and Senate seat losses in two straight elections, Democrats were suffering from low self esteem and lacked confidence. But after winning majorities in the House, Senate and governorships and expanding their lead in state legislative seats, Democrats have a bit more starch in their shorts, they are more bullish, and are more likely to think better of Clinton's chances of winning.

This showed up in the two-way trial heats between Clinton and Sen. John McCain, who is generally considered to be the frontrunner for the GOP nomination (notwithstanding former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's lead in the polls, discounted greatly due to his vulnerability in primaries and caucuses on social and cultural issues). In February, the Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll gave McCain a 12-point lead over Clinton among registered voters, 48 to 36 percent. That had declined a bit to nine points in April, 46 to 37 percent, and to seven points in June, 47 to 40 percent. But in the mid-November poll, McCain's lead had diminished to two points, 44 to 42 percent, and in this most recent poll, to a single point, 40 to 39 percent.

Two things probably contribute to this. First, Republican fortunes have taken a beating over the last year, and that is probably reflected in these numbers, independent of anything specifically related to McCain. Once Democrats have taken over Congress and the GOP scandals of 2006 fade a bit, this might not be quite the handicap that it is today.

Second, McCain has predictably had to engage in a bit of repositioning in order to maximize his chances of winning the GOP nomination, with his visit to Jerry Falwell and his commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University being most widely publicized. That has cost McCain some support among Democrats. In February he was pulling 17 percent of the vote among Democrats when pitted against Hillary Clinton, running 52 points behind Clinton among Democrats. In the November poll he was down among Democrats to ten percent, running behind her by 73 points. He again drew ten points in December among Democrats, running 61 points behind (McCain ran either six or seven points ahead of Clinton among independents in all three surveys and ahead by 79, 81 and 72 points in February, November and December, respectively among Republicans).

Simply put, McCain had been carrying some support among Democrats that he was almost certain to lose eventually, and he now has, making the race a good bit closer. The question is whether GOP fortunes turn up a bit next year, and if so, how much will it benefit McCain, if at all?

In terms of the GOP nomination, things in recent weeks haven't been nearly so dramatic. Insiders see the race shaping up to be a fight between McCain and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, with a widespread assumption, correct or not, that Giuliani won't pull the trigger. While the former New York City mayor has recruited a few highly regarded national political operatives, the bulk of those with national political experience have signed up with either McCain or Romney, or are waiting to be courted, with few holding their breath on a Giuliani candidacy or hopeful that it would be successful.

All told, next year promises to be the most exciting odd-numbered year in American politics in decades. It will be a virtual three ring circus, with battles on Capitol Hill and the contests for the Republican and Democratic nominations ensuring that there will never be a dull moment.