Democratic gains uncertain

October 9, 2006


There may be something going on in the country that makes the conventional wisdom Democrats will take control of Congress next month less likely than it appeared just a month ago.

For the vast majority of Americans who have been paying attention to the baseball pennant races, their kids' return to school or new television series, this may take some explaining.

While normal people were enjoying the summer, the folks who do politics 24/7/365 had come to the conclusion that this year's elections would usher Democrats back into power on Capitol Hill.

And that may well still occur come November.

But as the election nears and the American people begin paying more attention to the subject; doubt is creeping back into the cognoscenti about the clarity of their conventional wisdom.

If the Democrats seize control of both houses of Congress, that would doom President Bush's agenda for the last two years of his presidency and virtually guarantee gridlock in Washington, not to mention even greater partisan warfare than already exists. Even split control, one political party running the House, the other the Senate, would radically change the status quo.

Now, to be sure, there is good reason to think that this will be a Democratic year. It is, after all, the sixth year of George W. Bush's reign, and history says the president's party loses in an incumbent's sixth year.

The question is just how large will the Democratic wave be?

Bush's job approval ratings have been lousy - in the mid-30s for most of the past year - while those same polls have shown a decided preference for Democrats when voters are asked which party should control Congress.

To win a House majority, Democrats must net a 15-seat gain. Candidly, other than the pros who oversee the party campaign apparatus from Washington, few have the expertise in all 435 House races to forecast the big picture.

The two who are best at it, D.C. gurus Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg, have been saying that absent some change, Democrats would probably grab power in the House, and the news media coverage of the election has carried the same tone.

The Senate is easier to count because its staggered terms mean only 33 seats will be decided this November, and the Democrats need a net gain of six seats to take control. The consensus has been that the Republicans' chances are better off in the Senate than they are in the House, but that if there is a large enough wave, it could bring Democrats into Senate control also.

However, in recent weeks we have begun to see a bump in President Bush's approval rating nationally and GOP prospects have brightened somewhat in several key Senate races. Although Bush is not on the ballot, history has shown a link, especially in House races, between a president's popularity and how his party does at the polls.

Now, whether the Bush surge continues is anyone's guess, but a further popularity increase would almost certainly do damage to Democratic dreams.

The recent declines in the price of gasoline and interest rates have improved the public mood. And that has led to the public giving Bush getting better grades on the economy.

Democratic hopes for a November sweep are built on the belief that the strong aversion to the president and his polices among party activists will be shared by the much larger group of rank-and-file party members whom they need to turn out in November.

But so far, the message from Democratic primaries has been that the electorate is not that energized. For instance, in Florida, a state with a plurality of Democratic voters, turnout was higher in the Republican primary for governor.

What all of this means is that if you haven't been paying attention to the upcoming election you haven't missed that much. Now that the election is just a month away, we'll see just how unhappy Americans are with President Bush and the Republicans.

- Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a former editorial columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.


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