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The Big Picture

Are the Republicans in serious danger of losing both the House and the Senate? Or would the Democrats have to get extremely lucky to take control of either chamber? At least for the moment, the forecast depends on whether contests are examined race by race -- the "micro" approach -- or are looked at altogether in light of the national political environment.

The latter, "macro" approach is the one that suggests that the GOP could get swamped by a tidal wave. By almost every relevant measurement, national polls indicate that Republicans are at least as bad off as Democrats were at this point in 1994, before suffering devastating midterm losses.

Heading into the spring of 1994, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and the late Robert Teeter, a Republican, found that 33 percent of Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction and 47 percent said it was on the wrong track, a 14-point advantage for pessimism. A new NBC/Journal poll, taken March 10-13 by Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, shows 26 percent "right direction" to 62 percent "wrong track," a 36-point edge for pessimism.

At this stage of 1994, President Clinton's job rating, according to NBC/Journal polling, was 55 percent approval, 36 percent disapproval. In contrast, President Bush enjoyed only 37 percent approval -- and 58 percent disapproval -- in the latest NBC/ Journal poll. And the March 10-12 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll pegged Bush's approval at 36 percent, with 60 percent disapproval.

In mid-March 1994, Gallup put Clinton's approval at 50 percent and disapproval at 41 percent. In the final Gallup Poll before the 1994 election, Clinton's approval and disapproval scores were tied at 46 percent -- 10 points more positive than Bush's current standing.

Twelve years ago, Congress's approval rating in the NBC/Journal poll was just 31 percent, compared with 58 percent disapproval. The most recent NBC/Journal survey found 33 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval.

Congressional incumbents are slightly more popular as a group than they were a dozen years ago. Then, 35 percent of voters were inclined to re-elect their House member; 47 percent preferred someone new. Now re-election is the choice of 41 percent, while 48 percent want a new face.

When voters were asked which party they favored in the coming congressional election, the 1994 Democrats were running 5 points ahead, 34 percent to 29 percent, in the NBC/Journal poll. Now that survey shows Democrats have a 13-point lead, 50 percent to 37 percent.

In the new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, Democrats led by 16 points: 55 percent to 39 percent. The latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll had Democrats leading by 14, and the AP/Ipsos poll indicated that Democrats hold an 11-point advantage.

Poll results for the generic congressional ballot question tend to skew 5 points in the Democrats' favor, I've found. Taking that thumb off the scale, Democrats still are running 6 to 11 points ahead.

Perhaps the only solace for the GOP in this year's NBC/Journal polling is that both parties' scores are lower than in 1994. Then, the GOP earned a positive rating from 42 percent of respondents and a negative one from 25 percent.

This year, the GOP's ratings are 34 percent positive, 43 percent negative. For Democrats, the ratings were 40 percent positive, 28 percent negative in 1994; now they are 32 percent positive, 37 percent negative.

Twelve years ago, the floor underneath Democrats didn't really begin sagging until summer. And the collapse didn't come until August. Even then, few observers expected the GOP to gain the 40 seats it needed to win the House. And a micro analysis suggested that the Republicans couldn't gain more than 30 to 35 seats. In the Senate, the Democrats' troubles were far more apparent.

On Election Day, the GOP tidal wave turned out to be a lot stronger than anticipated, and a 52-seat House gain (counting two post-election switches) went into the record book.

Today's national data forecast an anti-GOP tidal wave. Will it be large enough to wipe out structural advantages that benefit Republicans?

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