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Gathering Storm

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Time is running out for Republicans. Unless something dramatic happens before Election Day, Democrats will take control of the House. And the chances that they'll seize the Senate are rising toward 50-50. The electoral hurricane bearing down on the GOP looks likely to be a Category 4 or 5, strong enough to destroy at least one of the party's majorities. The political climate feels much as it did before previous elections that produced sizable upheavals, such as in 1994, when Democrats lost 52 House seats, eight Senate seats, and control of both chambers.

In the past two weeks, polling by CBS News/New York Times, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, and The Cook Political Report/RT Strategies found that just 27 to 28 percent of voters think the country is headed in the right direction. Between 60 and 66 percent say we are "on the wrong track." These are the kinds of "time for a change" numbers associated with tidal-wave elections.

In those same three polls, approval ratings for Congress ranged from 25 to 28 percent, with disapproval ratings of 57 to 60 percent. Keep in mind the Gallup Poll's rule of thumb: When Congress's job-approval rating is 40 percent or higher, the average midterm election net change in the House is just five seats; when its approval is below 40 percent, the average net change is 29 seats.

And significantly, in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, just 38 percent of voters said their representative "deserves re-election"; 48 percent said it is "time to give a new person a chance." These numbers don't indicate a status quo election.

Consider also the venerable "generic congressional ballot test" question. Those same three polls show Democrats holding an advantage of 10 to 13 points. Other polls peg the Democratic advantage as low as 8 points or as high as 16. Looking at all eight July polls, the Democrats' average lead was 11 points.

Since the midterm elections is typically a referendum on the party in power and, more specifically, on the president, George W. Bush's approval ratings are a factor in how the Republicans are likely to fare this fall.

In the most recent polls by CBS/New York Times, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Cook Political Report/RT, Gallup, and Fox News, Bush's approval ratings range from 36 to 40 percent. His July average in all major national polls covered by PollingReport.com was 38 percent, exactly the same as the trend estimate computed by the University of Wisconsin's Charles Franklin on his Web site called PoliticalArithmetik.blogspot.com.

President Clinton's lowest job-approval in the Gallup Poll at any point in 1994 was 39 percent. Again, Bush's numbers are consistent with a tidal wave.

What about voter turnout? In both the Cook/RT and the NBC/WSJ surveys, when voters were asked to rank, on a scale of 1 to 10, how interested they were in the upcoming elections, Democrats were much more interested.

Voters ranking themselves as most engaged (10) favored Democrats by 14 points in one poll and 18 points in the other. As RT Strategies pollster Thom Riehle puts it, "We are approaching the point where most Democrats can't wait to vote, and some Republicans are embarrassed about voting. The effect of lopsided partisan interest in voting is magnified in low-turnout midterms, such as in 1974 and 1994."

Finally, money counts. When you add up the June 30 cash-on-hand figures for the two parties' House and Senate campaign committees, Republicans have only an $11 million edge -- $91 million compared with $80 million. During the past nine election cycles, the GOP generally spent 50 to 100 percent more than the Democrats. That's not happening this year.

Looking at the House race by race, we rate 15 Republican-held seats and no Democratic ones as "toss-ups." House Democrats need a 15-seat gain, and it wouldn't take much of a wave for them to get it. Even without a big wave, Democrats could add five of the six seats they need to take over the Senate. And it's important to remember the typical domino effect in Senate elections -- the closest races tend to break overwhelmingly in the same direction.

The bottom line: Unless something happens to interrupt current patterns, the House will turn over and the GOP will hang on to the Senate by a thread.

 
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