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.
The reciprocal of this example would be Christmas shopping. Most men buy their wives’ presents during the few days before the holiday, while their wives have purchased theirs in September or October. A Christmas ad in the fall will reach the shoppers but leave their spouses unmoved. An ad Dec. 23 will make little difference to those who have already done their shopping but would be of great moment to the others.
So what is the state of play of the congressional handicapping now?
A bit less than half of all voters say that the country would be better off if the Democrats ran Congress, while a bit more than one-third say they would like the GOP to remain in charge. Bush’s ratings are regularly below 40 percent, and his profile on the issue that voters care about most, energy prices, is virtually nonexistent.
The main GOP issue is terrorism, but as we succeed in the war on terror its saliency is dropping every month. Corruption has become a one-party issue, and the blame is falling squarely on the Republican leadership in Congress.
That a Kennedy fell off the wagon and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) flew off the handle are not enough to besmirch the Democrats. Rep. William Jefferson’s Louisiana larceny — keeping $90,000 in his freezer, a new definition of frozen assets — is also not enough to offset the spectacle of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) resigning and the House leadership running for cover.
So this year will probably be a wipeout for the GOP. Enough to lose control? Probably. But, the point of this column is that it’s too soon to tell.