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GOP's Tumbling Numbers

Even though the GOP is very unlikely to lose control of the House or Senate next year, any Republican in a potentially competitive race would be wise to call a pollster. Recent surveys -- nationwide and in key states and districts -- indicate that support for the GOP has deteriorated enough to be a cause for considerable concern for those Republicans facing real contests.

A Pew Research Center poll of 1,502 adults conducted nationwide from May 11 to 15 shows President Bush's approval ratings down to 43 percent, tying the record low he fell to in April 2004. Bush's disapproval rating is at a record high -- 50 percent. It's been a month since any major national poll has pegged his approval rating above 50 percent.

Perhaps more chilling for House and Senate Republicans is the current approval rating for "the Republican leaders in Congress." Pew says it is just 35 percent, 4 points lower than in March. Only five of the 57 times that Pew has asked that question since December 1994 has this Republican number been so low.

The Democrats' congressional leaders aren't polling much better. Their approval rating is just 39 percent, only 4 points higher than the Republicans'. The disapproval rating for Democratic leaders is 41 percent, 9 points below their Republican counterparts.

Over the past seven weeks, 38 or 39 percent of adults have responded "satisfied" when Gallup asked how they feel about the way things are going in the country. And 58 or 59 percent have said they are "dissatisfied."

Pollsters tend to think that the electorate is more pessimistic than angry these days. Although much of this pessimism may not be aimed at Republicans, they are more likely than Democrats to bear the brunt of the discontent, because they control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and most governorships.

Also, while I don't put much faith in polls that ask voters whether they want an unnamed Democrat or Republican to represent them in the House (the results almost always show a tilt toward Democrats, even just before they lose seats), recent national polling indicates an unusually large Democratic advantage -- 5 to 7 points. When results from the so-called generic congressional question point in the same direction as other polling data, they are worth noting.

And for Republicans, especially those in the Northeast, the numbers I am hearing from surveys in individual districts and states should be unsettling. As one GOP pollster joked ruefully, "When Republicans get a cold nationally, we are on our deathbed in the Northeast." Another Republican pollster remarked, "These things run in cycles, and we are near the low end of the range of normal variation. We are not as low as we were in the post-impeachment period from 1998 to 2000, but [we are] lower than we have been since 9/11."

One Democratic pollster argues that incumbents who are relatively undefined are the most vulnerable when their party's popularity takes a downturn nationally. Pollsters differ over the root cause of the GOP's current slide. Some point to Bush's approach to Social Security as a major problem, particularly among female voters. The theory is that older women are more likely to be dependent upon Social Security and women in general are more averse than men are to risk taking. All of this makes women less likely to support Bush's plan to divert part of some Social Security payroll taxes into the financial markets. Other pollsters see the economy, gasoline prices, Iraq, the endless succession of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff news stories, and the Terri Schiavo case as sources of the GOP's decline in popularity.

Some data suggest that the public sees the agenda of Bush and congressional Republicans as different from their own. The focus over the past few weeks in Washington has been on ethics committees, the "nuclear option," and judges, not on issues that most voters see as the nation's chief problems.

Yet no one predicts a 1994-style midterm election in which the majority party gets hit by a tsunami of voter discontent. It would take a tidal wave higher than '94's for Republicans to lose control of both houses of Congress.

However, all of the major elements that led the party holding the White House to get shellacked in four out of the five midterm elections held during a post-World War II president's second term seem to be aligning themselves once again. Republicans would be foolish not to worry.

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