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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Charlie Cook

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Charlie Cook

Last Build Date: Sat, 15 Jul 2006 00:30:39 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Returning to the Fold

Sat, 15 Jul 2006 00:30:39 -0600

But where has Bush gained ground? His standing among self-identified Democrats hasn't changed much. In January and February, they gave him approval ratings averaging just 9.8 percent. In March and April, that average ticked up to 10.2 percent, then dropped to 8 percent in May before edging back up to 9.3 percent for June and July. That isn't a lot of fluctuation. So, Democrats aren't the ones who have boosted Bush's popularity in recent weeks.

Among independents, Bush's approval rating was 31.5 percent in January and February, then dropped to 25 percent in March and April, and fell another half point in May before rising to 30.8 percent in June and July--almost back to what it was in the first two months of the year.

The biggest swings have occurred among Republicans. In January and February, Bush's approval averaged 83.3 percent among members of his party, then dropped 6.1 points in March and April polling, to 77.2 percent. In May, his GOP approval dropped again--to 69 percent--then popped back up by 9.5 percentage points in June and early July, to 78.5 percent. The variance between the president's high at the beginning of the year and his valley in May is a whopping 14.3 percent--far greater than his 6.5-point variance among independents and 2.2-point shift among Democrats.

While, clearly, the greatest fluctuation in Bush's support was among his fellow Republicans and his recovery is due to their returning to the fold, he is still 4.8 points lower among Republicans (in the June and July polling) than he was in January and February.

On the one hand, these numbers suggest that Bush can pick up another point or two just by regaining Republicans who have defected since the first of the year. For the president, that's the good news. The bad news for him is that the fluctuation among Democrats and independents has been so slight that he is unlikely to ever regain his popularity with either group.

Although these facts would seem to justify the focus-on-the-base strategy that many Republicans have been advocating in recent months, GOP pollsters privately say that the ground Bush needs to recover is among moderate, not conservative, Republicans. They say that the conservatives, whose focus tends to be on social and cultural issues, are back, and that moderate Republicans, who are more interested in economic issues than cultural ones, are the voters whom Bush needs to court. Continuing to emphasize cultural issues might even be counterproductive, the pollsters warn.

With less than four months until Election Day, the Republicans' challenge is to energize their conservative base without antagonizing their moderates, especially the suburban soccer moms and professional women who have strayed from the GOP column in increasing numbers in recent years. That's the needle that the Republican Party must thread if it is going to hold its very precarious House majority and ensure its continued control of the Senate.

'06 Senate Picture Changes a Bit

Sat, 01 Jul 2006 06:10:35 -0600

According to this line of thinking, Senate seats elsewhere are unlikely to change party--eventhough Democrats are fielding strong challengers to Arizona's Jon Kyl and Virginia's George Allen, and even though the races for the Democratic open seat in Maryland, the independent open seat in Vermont, and the seats of Democratic incumbents Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Robert Byrd of West Virginia,and Robert Menendez of New Jersey are theoretically competitive.

But that overall picture is changing a bit. The Arizona race between Kyl and wealthy real estate developer Jim Pederson has become as competitive as the Tennessee contest. In other words, for Democrats to gain the six Senate seats they need to seize control (provided they can hold all of their own turf), they must beat all of the Big Five vulnerable Republicans, plus win in either Arizona or Tennessee.

But Cantwell is beginning to look more vulnerable than she'd been expected to be. Holding her seat may be more difficult for Democrats than holding their open seat in Minnesota, where Rep. Mark Kennedy is carrying the GOP banner and Hennepin County (Minneapolis) Attorney Amy Klobuchar is the Democratic nominee.

Although a few other Senate contests feature credible challengers, these nine races (seven of them for seats now held by the GOP) are the most likely to produce party switches. And the bulk of the action, money, and attention will be focused there.

Inside the Beltway, the open Democratic seat in Maryland, where Paul Sarbanes is retiring, is getting considerable attention. Republicans have an even-money shot at holding that state's governorship, but the Senate race is a more difficult proposition. Maryland remains a very Democratic state. Gov. Robert Ehrlich is the first Republican since 1980 to win any statewide office, and many observers say his victory was mainly due to the extraordinary weakness of the 2002 Democratic nominee.

Across the river in Virginia, Democrats are touting their newly minted nominee, James Webb, who was secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. He appears unlikely to defeat Allen, but he is benefiting from the state's changing demographics. Virginia is becoming less reliably Republican as its northern suburbs continue to grow. At the very least, this contest is a nuisance for Allen, because it keeps him off the presidential campaign trail.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Senate races is the domino effect. In cycle after cycle, the closest Senate races all tend to break in one direction on Election Day. By the end of the 1998 campaign season, The Cook Political Report listed seven races as toss-ups; Democrats went on to win six of them (86 percent). Going into the 2000 election, we rated nine as tossups; Democrats won seven (78 percent). Two years later, Republicans won six of nine toss-up races (67 percent). And in 2004, Republicans won eight of nine (89 percent).

With at least two-thirds of the toss-up contests breaking in the same direction even in "non-wave" elections, even a relatively small number of competitive races can have a big effect on the makeup of the Senate. So, Republicans shouldn't take much comfort from the fact that only nine states appear likely to produce truly competitive contests this year.

Rays of Hope for Republicans

Sat, 17 Jun 2006 00:02:01 -0600

In four consecutive Gallup Polls in December and January, the president had 43 percent job-approval ratings. His numbers were 42, 39, and 38 percent in February; 36 and 37 percent in March; 37, 36, and 34 percent in April; and 31 percent in the May 5-7 survey. Just days later, a May 8-11 poll gave Bush a 33 percent approval rating, followed by a 36 percent rating earlier this month. In the June 9-11 Gallup survey, taken immediately after the killing of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, the president got 38 percent approval.

Likewise, an Associated Press/Ipsos poll, taken June 5-7, showed a 2-point uptick since its early May survey. A Cook Political Report/RT Strategies survey taken June 1-4 showed a 1-point increase since the end of April. Modest gains, yes, but a departure from the downward spiral of previous months.

While a CBS News poll taken June 10-11 gave the president a 33 percent approval rating, 2 points below his mid- May score, both CBS surveys gave Bush higher approval ratings than the 31 percent registered in the CBS/New York Times poll at the beginning of May.

Similarly, right-direction numbers that had hit bottom in April and May, when 23 and 24 percent readings were pretty typical, have edged up into the 26-to-29 percent range. The 26 percent right-direction number in the Associated Press/Ipsos poll was up 3 points from an early May survey. Because not all polls ask the right-direction/wrong track question, there is less of a time series available to analyze, but the responses do seem to be moving in the GOP's direction.

In terms of the job Congress is doing, 27 percent of respondents approved and 63 percent disapproved in the latest Gallup Poll--a net disapproval of 36 points. That's a pretty sorry standing, but it is not Congress's lowest rating this year. The five previous times that Gallup asked the question, the net disapprovals ranged from 38 to 47 percent.

While much has been said and written about that special election in northern San Diego County, it should be remembered that very, very few Republican-held seats up in November will be in districts where the incumbent pleaded guilty to bribery charges and the GOP hopeful worked as a Washington lobbyist since leaving Congress. The situation brings to mind a bumper sticker I once saw: "Don't tell my mother I'm a lobbyist. She thinks I'm a piano player in a whorehouse."

The close race was a reminder that Republicans have their work cut out for them this year. But who needed another sign of that? Perhaps the most important takeaway from the election is that Democrats seemed on the verge of victory (some private polling had their candidate up 2 points going into the last week of the campaign), only to have an inexperienced, third-string candidate snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by appearing to urge illegal immigrants to vote.

The fate of House Democrats rests in the hands of equally novice or thirdtier candidates in many districts. What happened in California may be a foreshadowing of snafus in other races down the final stretch this fall.

The situation remains very serious for Republicans, but perhaps not quite as bad as it looked a month ago, and we still have more than four months to go before Election Day.

Handicapping '08

Sat, 10 Jun 2006 00:54:23 -0600

It strikes me as extremely unlikely that the GOP will nominate someone who favors abortion rights and supported gay-rights and gun-control measures as New York's mayor. Therefore, it is doubtful that Giuliani will run. With Hizzoner out of the mix, McCain jumped to 37 percent, Romney came in second with 10 percent, Gingrich got 9 percent, Pataki climbed to 6 percent, Frist and Allen each had 5 percent, Tancredo still had 3 percent, and Brownback trailed with 2 percent.

A May 13 National Journal Insiders Poll of 103 members of the Republican establishment had 63 picking the senator from Arizona as the most likely nominee, 20 choosing Allen, and 10 opting for Romney. The results are quite different from those of the Cook/RT Strategies poll, though a survey at this point is heavily influenced by name recognition, while the Insiders Poll shows where the "smart money" is inclined to place a bet. It was also a marked shift from the December Insiders Poll that had Allen and McCain neck and neck with 39 and 38 votes, respectively, and Giuliani with 7.

One explanation is that Allen, as the most Bush-like candidate, has been badly hurt by the president's popularity plunge, while the nomination of maverick McCain was always more likely to be based on electability, or perhaps desperation, than on his being the first choice of conservatives and the party establishment. McCain's chances have long appeared to be in direct proportion to the perceptions within the GOP that Clinton would be the Democratic nominee and that McCain would have the best chance of beating her. If a less polarizing Democrat were likely to win the nomination, say a Bayh, a Vilsack, or a Warner, McCain's stock might fall a bit.

On the other side, Clinton led among Democrats and Democratic- leaning independents in the Cook/RT Strategies poll with 37 percent. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts held second place with 20 percent, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina landed in third with 12 percent. In the second tier, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware ran fourth with 5 percent, and there was a three-way tie for third between retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas, Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, each with 3 percent. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana had 2 percent, and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, the latest to throw his hat toward the ring, had 1 percent. Clinton's strongholds were women (45 percent), nonwhites (50 percent), Northeast voters (51 percent), those with some college education (47 percent), and those ages 35 to 49 (44 percent).

In the NJ poll of 108 Democratic insiders, 73 picked Clinton as the most likely nominee, 10 picked Warner, and seven chose former Vice President Gore, who all but swore off the race last week.

When the front-runners were matched up in the poll, McCain led Clinton by 7 points, 47 percent to 40 percent. McCain carried Republicans by 86 percent to 6 percent; Clinton dominated Democrats 78 to 16 percent. McCain held an 11-point lead among independents, 45 to 34 percent, while Clinton edged him among women, 45 to 43 percent. The Republican prevailed among men by 19 points.

Show the Wreckage

Sat, 13 May 2006 00:45:40 -0600

So, here's an idea for the House and Senate majority and minority leaders of January 2007--whoever they will be. Have a media consultant put together a 15-minute video that reviews the past 30 years of Capitol Hill scandals and what happened to the miscreants involved. Show it at your party's first caucus and make attendance mandatory. The ethics show would be the congressional equivalent of the gory driver's ed films used to frighten teenagers.

Just think what life would be like for House Democrats right now if Alan Mollohan of West Virginia and William Jefferson of Louisiana had behaved themselves a bit better. Democrats would have the moral high ground.

And what about Republicans? For them, it would be bad enough to have to deal with a midterm election while the White House is occupied by an unpopular president from their party who is conducting an unpopular war and whose most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll job-approval rating is just 7 points above what President Nixon's was when Marine One took him back to San Clemente. But they also have former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham of California, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, and lobbyist Jack Abramoff as millstones around their necks.

There isn't a whole lot that Republicans can do about Iraq and Bush's unpopularity, but these other problems are, collectively speaking, self-inflicted, just as Mollohan and Jefferson are selfinflicted wounds for Democrats. I often wonder whether congressional leaders realize how ridiculous they look defending the bad behavior of their own members. Do they really think that viewers will be swayed by the contention that their party's members must be considered innocent until proven guilty if they don't give the same benefit of the doubt to the other party's lawmakers?

In addition to the scandals are the misbehavior problems, with Democrats leading the way with Cynthia McKinney's antics and Patrick Kennedy's nocturnal roamings. The Republican slips tend to attract less attention--a random gun discovered in carry-on luggage by airport security, for example.

What I wonder is whether congressional leaders ever lecture their members on collective responsibility, remind them that their behavior reflects on the entire party caucus and on Congress as a whole, and warn them that ethics lapses jeopardize not only the offender's career but also the reputations and careers of others.

Partisanship being what it is, a member can depend on the opposition to throw a gigantic spotlight on any alleged transgression. And both sides tend to be guilty of selective outrage, becoming insufferably self-righteous about the indiscretions of opponents while turning a blind eye to misdeeds within their own party.

To me, that's one reason it's so easy to be an independent. There tends to be an equal amount of stupidity, hypocrisy, malfeasance, and even meanspiritedness on either side of the aisle, if you look hard enough. And that makes it difficult to root for one side or the other with much enthusiasm. Most partisans just won't admit that truth.

Bring on the midnight-smashup driver's ed film on ethics. Design it to have a stomach-turning effect on politicians mentally substituting their own names in the headlines and faces in the TV footage of perp-walks. Perhaps a few more would decide that succumbing to temptation just isn't worth the risk.

Gas-Price Voters Aren't Pumped Up

Sat, 06 May 2006 08:17:10 -0600

Riehle and his partner, Lance Tarrance, asked respondents to name which of seven issues will be most important to them in deciding how to vote for Congress in the midterms--in much the way exit polls ask voters what issue most influenced their decision. The top response was jobs and the economy with 19 percent, followed by the war in Iraq with 16 percent. There was essentially a four-way tie for third place, with gasoline prices, immigration, and health care at 12 percent each and education at 11 percent. Terrorism trailed with 7 percent. (Other issues and "don't know" received a combined 12 percent.)

But among respondents who seem most likely to vote, the 54 percent who rated their interest in the upcoming
election as either a 9 or a 10--on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being highest-- gasoline prices came in dead last of the seven issues. Interestingly, 65 percent of respondents who cited terrorism as their top concern said they are highly motivated to vote, as did 62 percent of those who chose Iraq, 58 percent of those who cited immigration, and 57 percent of those who picked health care. Bringing up the rear were the jobs/economy voters at 51 percent, the education voters at 50 percent, and the gasoline-price voters at just 39 percent.

What's more, gasoline voters don't sound much different from other respondents. The survey showed that 49 percent of registered voters say they favor Democrats' controlling Congress after this midterm election while just 37 percent favor GOP control, a 12- point Democratic edge. Republicans had a 60-point advantage among terrorism voters while Democrats had a 43-point advantage among Iraq voters, a 29-point advantage among education voters, a 24-point advantage among jobs/economy voters, and a 19-point edge among health care voters. Republicans had a 16-point advantage with immigration voters. But among gasoline voters, the Democratic advantage was 10 points, 48 percent to 38 percent, almost mirroring the overall number. In other words, gasoline prices didn't seem to make a lot of difference.

Now these data only tell us about the situation as of a week ago. They may or may not tell us much about the future. Taking inflation into account, gasoline prices would have to average $3.18 in today's dollars to set a record. And we're not there yet.

As a share of personal disposable income, the price of a gallon of gas in March was just over 0.30 percent, according to Tom Gallagher, a D.C.-based political economist with International Strategy and Investment, a firm that advises Wall Street clients on economics, policy, and politics. That compares with 0.24 of a percentage point back in November 2004.

What price would gasoline have to hit to upset voters enough for them to respond differently from what we've seen so far? No one knows. But, obviously, the political impact of this issue is more complicated than some observers seem to think.

Falling Through the Floor

Sat, 29 Apr 2006 00:54:36 -0600

So, what could save Republicans? In the Senate, if the tidal wave is gigantic and every seemingly vulnerable incumbent Republican is swept out--Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, Conrad Burns in Montana, Mike DeWine in Ohio, and Jim Talent in Missouri--and if Democrats hold all of their seats, the GOP would still have a one-seat edge.

To take over, Democrats must win the open seat in Tennessee, where the winner of the August 3 Republican primary will face Democratic Rep. Harold Ford. If Republicans hold Tennessee, they hold the Senate. If they have a truly horrible night and lose Tennessee, they lose the Senate.

But should the GOP's chances of picking up the open seat in Minnesota be dismissed so casually? Yes, even though Republicans have an excellent candidate in Rep. Mark Kennedy. And the same is true for the party's chances in Washington state, where the GOP is fielding a formidable challenger to Sen. Maria Cantwell. The fact is, if the political environment is so anti-Republican that five incumbents lose, then the GOP won't be able to gain ground in any Senate race. So, under the Republican apocalypse scenario, the Senate comes down to Tennessee.

In the House, where the GOP is more vulnerable, Democrats don't quite have to run the table, but they must gain 15 seats to take control. In the 35 House races that The Cook Political Report rates as competitive, Democrats need to hold all 11 of their own seats while winning 63 percent (15 out of 24) of the GOP seats. That doesn't sound nearly as daunting as the task facing Senate Democrats, who must win all 13 competitive races.

House Democrats have the momentum; Republicans will have the cash. Although the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has narrowed the cash-on-hand gap to $1 million--down from $4 million at the end of 2005, Republicans are virtually certain to end up outspending their Democratic counterparts. The National Republican Congressional Committee is also likely to get a $20 million to $25 million transfusion from the Republican National Committee. The DCCC cannot expect similar aid from its less wealthy national committee.

Many of the House contests that Democrats must win are in very expensive suburban districts, where investing $1 million to $2.5 million in party money will probably be necessary to be truly competitive. Can the Democrats possibly keep up if the GOP starts pouring in millions?

Bottom line: Democrats have the political environment on their side, but with so many of their targeted states and districts located in expensive media markets, will they have the money they need to take advantage of the wind at their backs?

McCain's '08 Moves

Sat, 15 Apr 2006 05:12:39 -0600

If McCain is to win the support of the GOP faithful, he needs to shed his image as an undependable maverick. And he is clearly working to do just that. Even the White House communications director would not have defended Bush as vociferously as McCain recently did on Meet the Press. Whenever possible, McCain is jumping to the president's side to demonstrate that he is now a reliable team player.

But McCain isn't the only one doing the moving. The Republican establishment is showing unmistakable signs of edging his way. When you see Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi taking McCain down to the Gulf Coast to look at hurricane damage and fawning over him at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis, while vying with Mississippi Gov.Haley Barbour to see who could suck up to McCain more, you know something is up.

A cynic might say that Lott and Barbour have visions of a running mate slot or a Cabinet post dancing in their heads. And perhaps they do. But the idea gaining greater currency within the GOP is that McCain is the only Republican who could defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the general election--or that he would at least have the best chance of beating her.

The $64,000 question is how much McCain might jeopardize his potential general election support among Democrats and independents by bonding so publicly with the Right, including on his upcoming trip to Lynchburg, Va., to deliver the commencement address at the Rev.Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

In two Cook Political Report/RT Strategies polls - one taken in late February and the other in early April - McCain received 18 percent of the selfidentified "liberal" vote when matched up against Clinton. But will one in five liberals still support McCain if he continues to assiduously court conservatives?

In the latest Cook/RT Strategies poll, which was conducted April 6-9 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent, McCain's lead over Clinton among all adults dropped from 10 points (47 percent to 37 percent) to 5 points. Among registered voters, it dropped from 12 points (48 percent to 36 percent) to 9 points (46 percent to 37 percent).

While these shifts aren't huge, the McCain-versus-Clinton spread should be watched closely in coming months: Will it remain in the 10-15-point range that most polls have found in recent months, or will McCain's average advantage be only in single digits?

And polls should gradually show whether McCain can gain enough ground among Republicans and conservatives to offset defections from Democrats, liberals, and even moderates.

The Ailing Elephant

Sat, 08 Apr 2006 00:20:16 -0600

The fact that DeLay could have a net unfavorable rating yet not trail Lampson indicates just how Republican his district continues to be, even though DeLay gave up some of its reliably GOP areas during his successful mid-decade redistricting gambit to slash the number of Democrats in the Lone Star State's congressional delegation.

DeLay breezed through his primary, but winning the general election was going to be tough. He was faced with the prospect of raising money for what surely would have become one of the most expensive House races in history, while also raising cash to cover his mounting legal bills. It is unlikely that DeLay would have been able to sell a book to erase his legal bills, as President Clinton did after leaving office.

Now Republicans are sorting out what to do next. One option is to have DeLay move his legal residence out of Texas so that local Republicans can select a replacement nominee. The other is to have the governor call a special election. The first scenario is more likely since Lampson would have a huge financial advantage in a short special-election campaign.

While Republicans will probably retain DeLay's district, that victory--if it materializes--will have come at considerable cost. Democratic allegations that an arrogant Republican House majority has broken laws and fostered a "culture of corruption" have been seemingly corroborated on front pages and evening-news programs across the country. And even if Republican scandals in Washington have not emerged as the overarching national issue that Democratic leaders had hoped they would be, the incessant drip, drip, drip of scandal stories bolsters the Democrats' contention that it's "time for a change." As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., helpfully suggested, Democrats can just ask the electorate, "Had enough?"

The perception that Republicans have been in power too long-- not the corruption issue--accounts for much of what is ailing the GOP this year. While the "culture of corruption" chant will help keep Democratic voters in the Democratic column and sway a disproportionate number of independent voters to lean to the left, the biggest danger for the GOP is that its own voters will become disillusioned or complacent in an election in which the opposition's voters are hungry, agitated, and energized.

In presidential election years, roughly half of the voting-age population casts ballots. But in midterm elections, just one-third participates. Generally, independents are the ones who sit out midterms.

When a midterm election turns into a blowout, it's usually because one party's base was far more energized than the other's. The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that Democrats are already more fired up than Republicans. Pollsters Peter Hart, a Democrat, and Bill McInturff, a Republican, asked voters how interested they are in the November midterm elections on a scale of 1 (low interest) to 10. While 53 percent of Democrats picked 10, just 43 percent of Republicans did.

Simply put, Republican officials need to find a way to motivate their base by November, or holding Texas 22 will simply be a symbol of winning a battle but losing the war.

A Shortage of Top-Tier Challengers

Sat, 01 Apr 2006 06:16:06 -0600

But what, exactly, makes someone a top-tier challenger? A truly promising candidate possesses most--if not all--of the following characteristics: He or she has run and won competitive races; has stature and name recognition in at least one significant part of the district; has an interesting and/or compelling personality and life story; understands campaigns and what it takes to win; is a proven fundraiser; has a sufficiently thick skin to withstand darts from the other side; and is enough of a scrapper to fight back as hard as necessary.

In contrast, second-tier candidates are those who have a few of those traits, but not most of them. And thirdtier competitors tend to have, at most, only one or two of those key attributes. One reason that Democrats are hav-
ing recruitment problems is that they have not enjoyed a strong national wind at their backs since the 1982 midterm election, when a recession marked President Reagan's first term.

Before that, a pro-Democratic gale had not blown since 1974, when the Watergate scandal badly hurt Republicans
who had stood by President Nixon.

At 52, I'm at the older end of the peak age group from which parties hope to draw most of their top-tier, experienced challengers. People who are my age were in their late 20s in 1982. And, back then, most of those whom Democratic recruiters are now keen on luring into promising races either were not actively involved in politics or were on the lowest rungs of the political lad-der. Very few of them were in a position to appreciate what the political climate did to benefit Democrats that year, when they picked up 26 seats in the House even though they had fielded relatively few strong challengers and the GOP had run what was probably its strongest group of candidates in a generation. In 1974, today's 52-year-olds were just turning 21 and were even less politically aware.

Some observers argue that 1986 was a great year for Democrats because they recaptured the Senate. Yet that success had less to do with Democrats' popularity than with the weakness of GOP incumbents swept into office with Reagan in 1980.

To be sure, Republicans this year have just a handful of top-tier challengers of their own. And they've been unsuccessful at persuading strong candidates to run against several potentially vulnerable Democratic House incumbents, including Lincoln Davis (TN-04), Jim Matheson (UT-02), Dennis Moore (KS-03), Earl Pomeroy (ND-AL), and Stephanie Herseth (SD-AL).

Will fielding surprisingly few first-tier challengers keep Democrats from winning a majority in the House? If the wave that hits the GOP in November is weak, or moderate, the answer is yes. If the wave is strong, the answer is maybe. If that wave turns out to be a real tsunami, the answer is absolutely not.

Just remember: In 1994, the GOP ran, at best, only two dozen first- or second-tier challengers, but 4 challengers won. Even unpromising candidates can be swept into office by a tidal wave in their party's favor.

The GOP's Many 'Micro' Advantages

Sat, 25 Mar 2006 07:42:00 -0600

Santorum is running 10 to 15 points behind in most polls, though my guess is that race will tighten considerably. Chafee is seeking re-election in one of
the two or three most Democratic states in the country and in a region that is the toughest for the GOP this year. He must survive a real primary fight just to get to the general election, so he is probably the second most vulnerable GOP incumbent. Montana's Burns is probably third, having entered the cycle in a precarious political situation that has been greatly aggravated by his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

DeWine doesn't have much baggage, but Ohio has become a disaster area for the GOP, thanks to state government scandals that have driven the Republican governor's job-approval rating down to 14 percent. While some contend that Democrats pushed the wrong candidate out of the race to avoid a contentious primary, DeWine's course will be very tough. Finally, Missouri's Talent faces a very aggressive challenge from state Auditor Claire McCaskill, who knocked out an incumbent governor in a primary two years ago. This race is tied in the polls.

So Democrats have to run the table by defeating all of the most vulnerable Republicans while holding all of their own seats, including in Minnesota, where their incumbent is retiring, and in Washington state, where Sen. Maria Cantwell faces a very strong challenger.

They also need to hang on to somewhat more secure open seats in Maryland and Vermont, as well as 14 other incumbents. Although not impossible in a favorable political climate, this is a very tall order.

In the House, where Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats, only about three dozen are truly in play today. So far, 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats have announced their retirements. Ten of those Republicans serve in safe GOP districts, where Democrats stand little chance of winning. Meanwhile, despite their Herculean efforts, Democratic recruiters have enticed few first-tier challengers into running this year.

Instead, the party has an abundance of second- and third-tier candidates who could never prevail on their own and would need a hurricane-force wind at their backs to cross the finish line first. (Democrats last had a strong political wind propelling them in 1982--and before that in 1974.) So, as with the Senate, Democrats need to win every truly competitive House race.

A hurricane does seem likely to hit the GOP this November. But the micro analysis shows that structural barriers in the House and Senate are protecting the Republican majorities like sea-walls, and would likely withstand the surge from a Category 1, 2, or 3 storm. They probably couldn't withstand a Category 4 or 5, though.

In 1994, the last wave election, Democrats were protected by many of the same barriers, particularly in the House. The tsunami that slammed into their party had looked perhaps 10 stories tall, not enough for the GOP to shift the necessary 40 seats. But the wave ended up being 15 stories high, and Republicans picked up 52 seats (plus two party switchers).

In four out of five elections, the micro analysis proves accurate. But in about one out of five, it doesn't. Will this year be one of those exceptions?

Dominating the '08 Buzz

Sat, 04 Mar 2006 08:52:11 -0600

The poll of 1,000 adults nationwide was conducted February 23-26 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.

Clinton does best among women and African-Americans, getting 48 percent of the female vote, compared with 38 percent of the male vote. She received a whopping 65 percent of black support, which could make her a big favorite in Southern primaries.

The curiosity surrounding the New York senator’s candidacy seems limitless, among friends and foes alike. In the Cook/RT survey, among Democrats and independents who lean Democratic, 47 percent thought that Clinton would be as electable as any other Democratic nominee. But 46 percent were concerned that she couldn’t win a general election.

Thom Riehle, the Democratic partner in RT Strategies, said, “Democrats are hungry for a victory.… Clinton’s success in winning the nomination will depend on reassuring Democratic primary voters, especially hard-core liberals, that her candidacy will not condemn them to four more long years in the wilderness.”

In the poll’s GOP trial heat, McCain and Giuliani tied with 30 percent, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 11 percent.

While Clinton must deal with electability questions, Giuliani has to figure out how to survive a GOP nomination process dominated by cultural conservatives. For Giuliani, the task will be quite a change from overwhelmingly Democratic New York City, where a Republican seeking office needs to take liberal social and cultural positions.

Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were read two descriptions of Giuliani: “He really cleaned up New York City as mayor and made it a safer place to live or visit, and then showed real courage as a leader after the attack on the World Trade Center,” and “His views on some issues—because he is pro choice on abortion, and supports gun control and gay rights—make it hard … to support him for president.”

Based on those statements, 50 percent said they would nominate Giuliani, while 43 percent would not. Among self-described conservatives, who tend to dominate GOP primaries and caucuses, 46 percent would choose Giuliani, while 48 percent would not. Clearly, how to view the ex-mayor is a very divisive question within the GOP.

Lance Tarrance, the Republican partner in RT Strategies, says, “On the strength of name recognition, Giuliani runs right alongside McCain, but when you put his foot to the fire on issues like abortion, gun control, and gay rights, a significant number of Republicans can’t support him.” Although many conservatives have serious reservations about McCain’s ideology and party loyalty, the Arizona senator’s problems pale in comparison with those Giuliani would face.

In a general election trial heat, McCain led Clinton by 10 points, 47 percent to 37 percent. He won 84 percent of Republicans, but she carried only 69 percent of Democrats.

No matter what turns this year’s contests take, count on Clinton, McCain, and perhaps Giuliani to remain obsessions of the political world.

Bush Slumps When Gas Prices Surge

Sat, 18 Feb 2006 11:06:29 -0600

Energy prices deserve more attention as a factor in influencing presidential popularity than they usually get. We are, as President Bush has pointed out, “addicted to oil.” The financial well-being of many American families is seriously affected by swings in the price of oil (in the form of gasoline or homeheating oil); natural gas, which heats more than 55 percent of American homes; and electricity, much of which is generated from oil or natural gas.

Because U.S. workers’ real wages have not kept pace with inflation, surges in energy prices hit American wallets especially hard these days. Even though broad economic indices suggest the nation is prospering, high energy prices have helped to drive down—and keep low—the percentage of Americans who say the country is headed in the “right direction.”

Four years ago, a barrel of West Texas intermediate crude oil traded for $18. On August 30, that benchmark hit $69.91. This Wednesday, it closed at $57.65. Our nation’s gradual shift from manufacturing toward a service-sector economy has lessened the impact of energy prices a bit, but those prices continue to play a very important role in the finances of working-class and middle- class families.

To gauge what role energy prices play in Bush’s popularity, Tom Gallagher and his team of economists and analysts at the ISI Group, a firm that advises Wall Street and money managers on economics, public policy, and politics, looked at the president’s Gallup Poll job-approval ratings in relation to shifts in the monthly wholesale price of unleaded gasoline. When gasoline prices went down, they found, Bush’s approval rating tended to go up, and vice versa. Gallagher’s group found a strong correlation—0.73, which to statisticians suggests that roughly half of the fluctuation in Bush’s approval rating can be accounted for by changes in gasoline prices.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that gasoline price increases necessarily caused the president’s jobapproval numbers to fall. Indeed, in some cases, the forces that boosted gas prices also increased voters’ dissatisfaction with the president’s performance.

Energy prices have been particularly volatile in recent years, partly because of the war in Iraq, worries about a potential confrontation between Iran and the West over nuclear weapons production, and political instability in Venezuela and Nigeria. The status of Gulf Coast re- fineries has also affected the price at the pump. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged some refineries. Another re- finery, one of the most important, in Texas City, Texas, was out of commission for months after a 2005 explosion. On the plus side, an extraordinarily mild January helped reduce demand for oil.

So, on top of all the other variables that could affect Bush’s popularity and that of the GOP as a whole between now and the midterm elections, don’t underestimate the potential impact of changes in the cost of energy, particularly the price of gasoline. At one point last month, energy analysts were predicting that gasoline prices could rise another 20 cents to 30 cents a gallon by summer. In recent weeks, the price per gallon has actually dropped a few cents.

Whichever way the price of gasoline goes, it’s worth keeping an eye on if you want to know the direction of Bush’s political fortunes.

Beware of Microscopic Majorities

Sat, 11 Feb 2006 06:53:00 -0600

A half-dozen years ago, Mel Gibson starred in What Women Want, an inane movie about a guy who suddenly could read the minds of women he came close to. That silly film comes to mind these days when I listen to what Democrats say, because I find myself wondering what Democrats really want. Political parties always try hard to win as many races as possible in each election. What might be in their best interest is some times a different story. So the question arises: Do Democrats really want to win majorities in the Senate and the House in 2006? As ridiculous as that question may sound, consider the following: Let’s say Democrats are able to defeat Republican Sens. Conrad Burns in Montana, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, Mike DeWine in Ohio, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and Jim Talent in Missouri, plus win the Senate seat being vacated by Bill Frist of Tennessee, plus hold on to every one of their own seats, including the most problematic— an open seat in Minnesota and Maria Cantwell’s seat in Washington. Those successes would give the Democrats the barest, 51-vote majority and, along with it, the power to investigate and subpoena. But they could do very little else, particularly with President Bush in the White House. And what if Democrats captured all 21 of the House seats that Republicans seem in danger of losing and kept all 11 Democratic seats that now appear vulnerable? They would have a microscopic, five-seat, 223-212 majority. Notice that in both scenarios, I deliberately avoided the word “control.” A Senate majority with 51 seats or a House majority with 223 is hardly in control of anything. Again, Democrats would gain the power to subpoena and investigate, but little else. Could Democrats win larger majorities? In the Senate, only one other GOP seat is even theoretically vulnerable, that of Arizona’s Jon Kyl. So 52-48 is the very best the Democrats could possibly do. In the House, another half-dozen GOP seats might flip, but that is very unlikely as long as the number of Republican retirements stays low. Democrats have been unable to recruit top-tier candidates to challenge some of the most potentially vulnerable Republicans, leaving incumbents such as Anne Northup (KY-03) and Jon Porter (NV-03) to face second-rate Democratic opponents. The worst situation for any party in a legislative chamber is to have the responsibility to govern without the power to do so. If Democrats gain a majority in each chamber, they’ll find themselves sharing blame with President Bush. When voters are upset and when one party controls the White House, the Senate, and the House, fingers can point in only one direction. If Democrats gain a chamber, some of the air will start leaking from that “time for a change” balloon, and it would be awfully hard to reinflate. On the other hand, if Democrats go into 2008 just a few seats shy of a Senate majority, their chances of scoring a meaningful win in that chamber, as well as capturing the White House, would be substantial. (In 2008, 21 Republican Senate seats, but just 12 Democratic ones, will be on the line.) And in the House, drawing on the momentum of a 10- or 12-seat gain this year, national Democrats might be able to recruit strong 2008 candidates in districts where local party leaders have given up this year. While Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel has done his best to recruit first-rate Democratic challengers, the untold story is that it has been 24 years since Democrats went into a congressional election with a real wind at their backs. The chances of Democrats coming out on top in the 2008 races for real control of the Senate, the House, and the White House will be better if, i[...]