Current surveys show a tendency toward the Democrats but do not show a rout as of yet. But any Republican strategists who take comfort from that did not live through 1986 or 1994, the two most recent years when a party trend swept through Congress like a plague, killing the deserving and the undeserving alike.
In both of those years, the trend toward the party that eventually won manifested itself only in the last week of polling and really only in the last few days. So it will be in 2006.
Whether there will be a rout or not is anybody’s guess — mine is that there will be and that the Democrats will win both Houses of Congress. But you won’t see the process one way or the other in today’s polling data.
In 1986, the Republicans had no idea they would face a decimation of their Senate delegation. Many party leaders were insecure because the Reagan Revolution class of 1980 was coming up for reelection, and they worried that many of these young senators had not sufficient time to sink their roots and came from states where a Democrat would probably win in normal times. But nobody could foresee the extent of the Democratic Party victory, enough to keep the Senate in their control until 1994 despite losing the presidential race in 1988.
In 1994 the trend was even less evident. President Clinton traveled to the Middle East two weeks before the election to oversee — and take credit for — the signing of a peace accord between Jordan and Israel. When he returned, his approval ratings were higher than they had been in months and he was brimming with confidence that the Democrats would hold on to both houses. When the debacle struck, he was totally surprised and unnerved, as were Democratic strategists from coast to coast.
Why does party trend manifest itself so late in the polling process? Why is it so hard to pick up early on?
Despite the promptings of pollsters, voters do not focus on congressional or even senatorial races until much later in the process. Beforehand, they watch and listen but do not collect their thoughts or correlate their overall partisan inclinations with the votes they must cast in their own specific race. That thinking takes place only at the end.
To understand it, think of sports fans. Those who follow football avidly probably can handicap the Super Bowl on the first day of the regular season. But those who pay little or no attention have no idea what is going on. But on the day of the Super Bowl, everyone — fan or not — knows who is playing and likely knows some of the subplots the media have invented to hype interest in the game.