WASHINGTON -- At some point in an election cycle, out of exhaustion and desperation, commentators turn to actual experts. So I recently posed several questions to Charlie Cook of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Question: Is this a wave election? Yes, but the wave seems to have crested. "This is approximately where the 1994 election was -- something in the range of eight Senate seats, 52 House seats," says Cook. "A month ago, there was a chance it could have gone from gigantic to titanic. But the possibility of Republican House gains in the 60s or 70s has declined in the last month."
The elements of a large GOP victory remain in place. Republican voters are likely to turn out disproportionately. Independents have swung toward the GOP. But through trial and error, Democrats eventually hit on a more effective public message. "They tried bashing Bush for months, which did not work," Cook explains. "They gave up defending their record. Now they are going after the personal and career shortcomings of their opponents, some of whom are not very well vetted."
In particular, Cook argues, "Christine O'Donnell gave Democratic voters a bit of a jolt." The effects of her unique charisma can be found outside Delaware. "Pennsylvania has gotten closer," says Cook. "(Republican Senate candidate Pat) Toomey hasn't done anything stupid. There is spillover from attention to Delaware."
Tea party enthusiasm adds to Republican momentum, but clearly some tea party candidates are rallying Democratic resistance.
Question: Are angry midterm voters reacting to economic conditions, or against President Obama's policy agenda?
The two are related. Because of the economy, "any one-party government right now would be paying a horrific price," explains Cook. But irrelevant ambitions complicated Obama's political task. "Every month, every week, every day that Washington seemed focused on health care instead of the economy frightened people. It seemed out of touch." Cook says the decisive political moment came in the summer of 2009, as unemployment remained well above 9 percent "when it wasn't supposed to get to 8.2 percent. ... I have never seen an economic stimulus completely discredited before. But it was."
"In a difficult economic climate," Cook added, "they (the president and Democratic leaders) seemed to check the box on the economy, so they could quickly move on to climate change and health care. Like they were going through the motions."