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Falling Numbers

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President Bush's job-approval ratings have dropped so low that he could become a real political liability for his party. Ranging from 38 to 46 percent, those ratings are the lowest of his presidency. And they are much closer to those of President Nixon at this point in his second term than they are to President Reagan's or President Clinton's. What should be especially worrisome to GOP strategists is that some 40 percent of the electorate strongly disapproves of Bush's performance.

The GOP ought to worry that Bush might be like our newly beloved Washington Nationals: amazingly strong for the first half of the season, winning a disproportionate share of close games -- but in the second half losing the kind of games that had been breaking their way. Many things broke Bush's way in his first four years, but he has hardly been able to buy a break since winning re-election.

If Bush's ratings remain dismal, could his unpopularity cost the Republican Party its majorities in the House and the Senate?

I've consistently been very skeptical that Democrats can retake the House in 2006, given the exceedingly small numbers of competitive districts, vulnerable Republican incumbents, and open seats, and given the dearth of credible Democratic challengers to the few vulnerable GOP incumbents. For Democrats to seize control, they would have to hold all of their own 14 most vulnerable seats while carrying 15 of the 18 most vulnerable Republican seats. That's a daunting task.

The Democrats' difficulties are similarly monumental in the Senate. To take that chamber, they would have to pick up Sen. Bill Frist's open seat in Tennessee, then knock off Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania. They would also have to beat three of the following four: Conrad Burns of Montana, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Jon Kyl of Arizona, and Jim Talent of Missouri. At the same time, they would have to hold their own open seats in Maryland, Minnesota, and Vermont, and make sure that endangered Democratic incumbents, such as Maria Cantwell of Washington, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, won.

All of these numbers suggest that if 2006 is an ordinary election year, Democrats will once again fall short in both the House and the Senate. But these numbers aren't the end of the story, because in about one of three elections, the playing field becomes so tilted in one party's favor that the normal political laws of gravity are suspended: Inferior candidates are suddenly capable of beating superior ones, weak campaigns can beat strong ones, and underfunded -- in some cases, almost unfunded -- campaigns can beat ones that are flush with cash.

Eight of the 25 elections over the past 50 years produced an extraordinary shift in the House, the Senate, or both -- in 1958, 1964, 1966, 1974, 1980, 1982, 1986, and 1994. In 1986, significant change was limited to the Senate and was arguably a rebound effect, since several freshman Republicans elected with Reagan in 1980 were not strong enough to swim on their own in 1986. Most conventional micro-political analyses really underestimated how much change would occur in that election.

So, it is unwise for anyone today to say flat out that Republican control is a lock in 2006. Race-by-race analyses in 1994 would have indicated that the GOP had no chance of a breakthrough. But a groundswell that began about six months before Election Day turned all the micro-analyses upside down. Even a couple of weeks before the balloting -- when the Senate looked to be on the edge of falling into Republican hands -- only the most die-hard Republican cheerleaders could envision the GOP's picking up the 40 seats necessary to capture the House. Any form of remotely objective analysis simply could not identify 40 districts that seemed to be on the verge of shifting to Republican hands.

Yet Republicans not only picked up the 40 they needed, they picked up an extra dozen. In a few cases, Republican challengers whom the GOP national leadership and campaign committees had hardly heard of, let alone helped, actually won in 1994. As in 1974 and 1980, some candidates who had been given no chance of winning, even by their own side, prevailed.

Since coming to Washington, I've witnessed five tidal wave elections: two tilted heavily in favor of Republicans (in 1980 and 1994) and three in favor of Democrats (in 1974, 1982, and 1986). Until you've weathered a couple of these, it's difficult to appreciate how radically they can transform the political landscape.

 
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