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Tough Call

Unlike 99.99 percent of the people who watch politics with a passion, political analysts don't care about which side wins, but they do care about correctly predicting the outcome. And that's why this election season has been so maddening: Trying to get a fix on what's going on has been like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall; it just won't stay put.

People expect analysts to have firm opinions about how an election year is going, even when key elements keep shifting. For the past 13 months, except for brief interludes in late spring and early fall, the Republicans' situation has looked increasingly serious.

The general trend, driven by the war in Iraq, scandals, and other issues as diverse as budget deficits, stem-cell research, and Terri Schiavo, was downward from the start. By early August, the number of endangered GOP House seats was getting close to the number that Democrats need to gain the majority. The GOP's grip on the Senate appeared to be weakening as well.

The Republicans' prospects took a decided upturn in September: Falling gasoline prices, the continuing interest in the arrest of terrorist suspects in London, and commemorations of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks effectively shifted the national spotlight back to terrorism, national security, and the fact that gas prices were no longer at a record high -- all of this meant a much more favorable agenda for Republicans.

I wrote at the time that if the public's attention remained on terrorism, national security, and cheaper gas, the GOP would likely hold its House majority and almost certainly hold its Senate majority. This prompted hateful e-mails from Democrats and liberals, who accused me of being a pawn of the White House -- and who obviously hadn't read my columns earlier this year that drew the enmity of conservatives and Republicans.

Toward the end of September, the spotlight shifted again, with 9/11 and terrorism falling off the front pages and off the top of the TV news. The war in Iraq and the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and his sleazy e-mails to congressional pages began to take center stage, riveting the spotlight on the year's worst constellation of issues for the GOP. This, of course, prompted another round of hostile e-mails to my in-box from conservatives and Republicans.

Even though the election is just over two weeks away, the national spotlight could shift again. At this point, though, campaign-related or domestic political events probably couldn't pull public attention away from the issues that are so hurting the Republicans. It would take a major international or domestic crisis -- something powerful enough to shove Iraq and scandals off the front pages and out of the first 10 minutes of TV news broadcasts.

Democratic voters are champing at the bit to cast their ballots. Republicans, meanwhile, seem depressed and far less interested in this election than they were in the 2002 and 2004 contests, when the GOP beat the point spread by turning out unexpectedly high numbers of voters. Indeed a recent Pew Research/Associated Press survey found that Democrats are even more motivated than Republicans were in 1994, the year they wiped out the Democrats by gaining 52 House seats and eight Senate seats.

No rational person is talking about Democratic gains of that magnitude. The relatively low number of open GOP seats -- and other structural factors -- will hold down the Democrats' pickups. But unless something major happens, we are still looking at big Democratic gains.

As of now, Republicans appear to be headed toward losing at least 20 House seats -- perhaps 30 to 35 or even a few more. The competitive races are there: 45 GOP-held seats are vulnerable and another 18 are potentially so.

In the Senate, the Republicans will most likely lose five or six seats. Six, of course, would give Democrats control of the chamber. It's possible -- though less likely -- that the GOP will lose as few as four or as many as seven Senate seats.

In big-wave elections, analysts tend to underestimate the number of seats that the party in power will lose. And so far, no political analyst has figured out how to accurately predict the size of an electoral wave before it crashes ashore.

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