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Generational Differences

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One aspect of this election cycle that has fascinated me for months is the generation gap that has developed among experienced political operatives and professional election analysts.

As a general rule, election-watchers under the age of 40, regardless of their party or ideology, see the contest for control of the House as fairly close. They foresee Republicans' losing at least 10 seats, but certainly no more than 20, and they put the odds of a Democratic takeover at 50-50, give or take 10 percentage points.

As for the Senate, these observers tend to expect Republicans to lose three or four seats, but probably not five and certainly not the six required for Democrats to take charge.

Observers over age 40, meanwhile, tend to see a greater likelihood of sizable Republican losses. They think that the GOP could well lose more than 20 House seats and more than five Senate seats.

Most of the professionals toiling in the vineyards of the party campaign committees and watching individual races most closely are in the under-40 cohort. They tend to see control of the House as a close call and tend to be most conservative on their House seat counts. They're also the least likely to think the Senate will change hands.

Invariably, these younger pros acknowledge that for Republicans this is a "very challenging election cycle," the euphemism that GOP spokesmen use to keep from saying that 2006 is shaping up as "a really bad year" for their party. Yet these younger observers focus almost exclusively on where each contest stands right now, employing a sort of political version of the literal interpretation of the Bible.

Older pros, while often one or more steps removed from the day-to-day developments in each contest, appear to read a bit more into the races, placing greater emphasis on the national political environment and what it is likely to mean for contests that are currently too close to call or for Republican incumbents with precarious leads.

These relative old-timers vividly remember the midterm elections of 1994, 1986, 1982, and 1974, as well as the presidential year of 1980, when the late Speaker Tip O'Neill's adage "All politics is local" clearly didn't apply.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been struck by the sameness of what I've heard in conversations with a host of former executive or political directors of the parties' House and Senate campaign committees and with veterans of the Reagan and Clinton White House political offices.

Almost to a person, the consensus is that "the House is gone" for the GOP unless, as each noted carefully, "something big" happens. And although a clear division of opinion exists among them on the outlook for the Senate, no one disputes that the GOP is facing some tough losses in that chamber.

One veteran of the Reagan White House's political shop, who has 30 years of experience and still keeps a close eye on races, recalled that in 1982, 14 Republican House members who had double-digit leads on October 1 ended up losing.

The old bulls seem to sense that "we've seen this play before," and to note unmistakable signs that were overlooked or discounted in many of those previous elections. They've seen level-playing-field elections -- the micro, race-by-race, what-you-see-is-what-you-get elections that characterize four out of five midterm cycles.

But they've also seen the other kind, when a significant number of superior candidates and campaigns lose because an invisible hand seems to push candidates of one party forward and hold back those on the other side.

The over-40 election-watchers emphasize that they aren't ruling out the possibility that something could help the GOP at the last minute, but they all believe that it would take something awfully big to enable Republicans to save the House and keep a secure majority in the Senate.

 
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