Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Variations on a Theme

Today seems to be the day that I write about how Democrats are blowing their hopes of gaining a majority in the midterm elections, and I've just noted another piece that hits on the same theme. This is from the E-mail list of Charlie Cook, a respected elections analyst. I like this piece because he hits upon some of the same things I've had to say in the last few days:

Pride Before The Fall?

By Charlie Cook
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I guess it was in the mid-to-late 1980s, not too many years after I began meeting with congressional candidates, that I realized there was a perfect correlation between those candidates who mentioned where they might want to live in the Washington area, or were in some other way licking their chops over a job that they had yet to win, and losing.

Quite simply, their contemplation of the appropriate way to tip their hats to the crowd distracted them from actually hitting that grand slam home run, and they struck out instead.

Those thoughts have come to mind repeatedly in recent weeks, as many House Democrats seem to have begun counting their chickens before the proverbial eggs have been hatched.

First there was Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's media tour expounding on what she would do as speaker, which quickly and rather derisively became dubbed by reporters as "Nancy's Victory Lap." Needless to say, more than a few experienced party strategists winced that week, seeing it as ill-advised and in poor form to boot.

Then last Friday, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., began passing out letters to fellow House Democrats on the floor, announcing that he would run for majority leader if Democrats gained control of the House.

That was even more flagrant chicken counting. Murtha, who has been a rather surprising yet steadfast ally of Pelosi, is also known to not be a big fan of Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, whom Pelosi defeated for the whip slot in 2001, before she moved up to leader. Hoyer, who is ideologically and stylistically considered to be more moderate than Pelosi, was widely presumed to be in line for the majority leader job if Democrats took over. Correctly or not, many interpreted Murtha's move on Hoyer to be tacitly approved by Pelosi.

Perhaps the irony in all of this Democratic victory clucking is that it is happening at a time when the president's freefall in the polls has stopped and he has even regained a couple of points.

It was just a few weeks ago that most polls showed job-approval ratings in the low 30s; now most are in the 35 to 38 percent range. While these numbers are still terrible, they are no longer dropping.

Other diagnostic indicators, such as right direction/wrong track, have stabilized and have even ticked up a bit. And despite the steady drumbeat of congressional scandals and with subpoenas swirling around Capitol Hill, Congress' job approval rating has even marginally improved, up 6 points since last month, from 21 percent to 27 percent, with disapproval down from 71 percent to 63 percent.

As might be expected with the president's approval rating moving up a bit and other indicators getting less horrible, the still-wide Democratic lead in the generic congressional ballot test has narrowed a bit. In a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted June 1-4, Democrats had a 51-42 percent lead over the GOP among registered voters, their lowest in the five Gallup polls since February. The poll of 1,002 adults had a 3-point error margin.

Beyond quantifiable data, Republicans won last week's special congressional election in California's 50th Congressional District. A loss there would have been widely interpreted, fairly or not, as a sure sign that their majority status would be short-lived.

Extrapolating special election results to future national elections is a dangerous game, as most of those contests have weird angles that distort their projectability. As I pointed out in this column before the polls opened last week, there are likely to be very few races this November in districts in which the long-time Republican lawmaker was headed to jail and where the GOP nominee is a former House member-turned-Washington lobbyist, certainly one of the most publicly scorned professions among many voters this year.

Overconfident Democrats need to be mindful as well that many of their opportunities to pick up Republican seats are with relatively inexperienced and second- or third-string challengers. Note that a verbal gaffe by the Democratic nominee might have cost them that critical special election.

In short, this hardly seems the time for Democrats to be celebrating. Regardless of what one might think the odds are of the House turning over, those odds are a tad less today than they were a month or two ago.

For Democrats with short memories, when Congress adjourned in September 2000 for the election, they left town thinking they would win back the majority they had lost in 1994, and if the election were held in mid-September, they probably would have. However, their hopes were dashed in October.

None of this is to say that Democrats can't or won't win a majority. After all, that same Gallup poll that showed the Democratic lead had dropped some still showed that among "regular voters" -- those who say they are registered, "always" vote and who voted in the 2002 midterm -- the Democratic lead is at 15 points, 55 to 40 percent. Gallup does not switch to its "likely voter" model until closer to election time.

While Democrats have every right to feel hopeful, one can practically hear Republican strategists chortling when they see such overconfidence among top Democrats because they know what usually follows such hubris.

Charlie Cook's "Off To The Races" is published each Tuesday by National Journal Group Inc. For more information about National Journal Group's publications, go to http://www.nationaljournal.com/about/

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