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Midterm Mixers

Think about all the problems for Republicans and the White House to worry about: Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the economy, with concerns about jobs clearly trumping strong economic growth numbers; as American casualties in Iraq are mounting, public opinion surveys show patience for the war wearing thin; President Bush's Social Security proposal is, it seems, dead, and his political capital is suffering from far more withdrawals than deposits; more and more legislative proposals are getting to be heavy lifts for the Bush administration, with the pending Central America Free Trade Agreement among the toughest.

Lastly, there is the developing Jack Abramoff/House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, situation, which has Republicans increasingly worried about the chance of a high-profile trial next year, just in time for the midterm elections. Combine all of that with the historical pattern for presidential party losses in midterm elections -- particularly bad in the second term -- and this looks troubling for the GOP.

But one dynamic complicates this picture. Let us say, hypothetically, that the United States was pretty evenly divided between the two major political parties and that a president had only reached a job approval rating of 20 percent among members of the opposite party in just three out of 37 Gallup polls conducted over the last year, the highest being 24 percent, the lowest 11 percent. The inescapable conclusion would be that, short of a war or another tragedy of 9/11 proportions, that president would never have a particularly good job approval rating.

Now let us say that among members of his own party, that same president never dropped below 85 percent approval, and that in 21 out of the 37 Gallup polls, his approval rating was in the 90s, peaking at 96 percent. In that case, he would have a very high floor, and unless his fellow party members began to abandon him, there is no way he could hit the historic low job approval ratings that Presidents Richard Nixon (24 percent), Gerald Ford (37 percent), Jimmy Carter (28 percent), Ronald Reagan (40 percent), George H. W. Bush (29 percent) and Bill Clinton (37 percent) received when they were in their worst shape.

This is exactly the situation that Bush finds himself in now. Of the 76 relevant national polls listed on realclearpolitics.com since the start of the year, all but eight have his approval ratings between 44 percent and 52 percent. In 44 of those surveys, his rating is less than 50 percent. Welcome to polarized America!

Sure, the polls look bad for Bush, but that high floor, supported by steadfast support levels among his own party members, prevents his numbers from getting down into that basket case level that each of his predecessors reached. As long as he enjoys the support of that 85 percent or so of Republicans, his numbers almost can't drop down to that 24-37 percent range visited by Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton and his father.

Another thing working in Bush's favor here is that the lack of competitive Republican-held House districts and states with Republican Senate seats up in 2006 make it very unlikely that the GOP will lose control of either chamber next year.

The safety net is, in some ways, simply a byproduct of our polarized situation. But to give credit where it is due, it is also the result of that much-maligned base strategy that Karl Rove designed for Bush. This strategy made sure that no matter what, the base stays with the president, so don't undercut yourself within your core of support by overly obsessing about moderate and independent swing voters.

It is also important to remember that the electoral divisions we see today pretty much reflect where the country is politically, and that is pretty evenly divided, with Republicans a bit ahead. The House is split 231 Republicans to 203 Democrats; the Senate has 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the Democrats. State legislatures are split right down the middle.

It is far too early to make any judgments about who will vote and who will stay home in next year's elections.

To be sure, there is a danger in taking this strategy too far and totally ignoring swing voters. But keep in mind, swing voters are much more likely to stay home in midterm elections than those voters who are a part of the party base. They tend to be less motivated, less committed to be a part of the process. They are hit-and-run voters, showing up at times, staying home at others, and are very fickle in their political behavior on so many levels.

Yes, there is a clear historical pattern for second-term, midterm election losses. The party whose president was in power lost dozens of House seats in 1958, 1966 and 1974, for example. But, having said that, the intensely polarized electorate adds a new and very different dynamic. Combined with the low number of competitive races, it is virtually impossible for such huge losses to happen this time.

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