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Nov 06 2006

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A Gathering Storm

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Grim, simply grim. The papers, polls and pundits all agree, Tuesday is not going to be a good day for Republicans.

First, consider time in office. With the exception of the “Jeffords Interregnum” in 2001 – when the Vermont Senator switched parties and made Tom Daschle Majority Leader for little more than a year – Republicans have controlled the House and Senate since 1995. A child conceived on election night in 1994 is in sixth grade today.

A long time by any measure, but particularly in the Internet age.

And then there is Iraq.

Three years and nearly three thousand casualties later, polls report that citizens have turned against the war by increasing margins. Without a sense of battlefield progress, energized voters seem ready to look to an extraction plan for Iraq, regardless of longer-term strategic consequences.

And through the lense of Iraq, other foreign policy issues seem more menacing. Consider the nuclear test by Kim Jong Il, or the boastful and incendiary statements by Iran’s President, Ahmadinejad. Nothing about the invasion of Iraq has apparently improved our ability to deal with these other Axes of Evil.

In addition, individual members of the Republican Congress have hardly helped their Party this year.

Scandals involving official corruption, hush money, salacious sexual peccadilloes and even allegations of physical assault have dominated the airwaves.

In addition, veteran Republican candidates have raised tongue slipping to an art form, needlessly criticizing “first responders” and inserting racial issues in unexpected and unhelpful ways.

And it doesn’t help that within the Republican coalition, the high priests of ideological purity have reviewed the past several years of GOP control and found the Party wanting. Impossible to please, convinced of their own superiority, and contemptuous of those who do not agree with their positions, this long simmering “French wing” of the Republican Party represents a unique challenge this year, as they actually advocate the Republicans losing control of Congress.

This, despite a GOP record that includes two reliably conservative Supreme Court appointments, a tax cut every year of Bush’s first term, advocacy and action on social issues such as gay marriage and government supported stem cell research, and the most ambitious effort to reform Social Security since it was created.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that if these people had been in General Eisenhower’s command, they would have advocated giving Normandy back to the Germans because they didn’t like the way the beaches were organized.

Unhelpful is an understatement.

The Opposition:

And then there are the Democrats.

Here, you have to give credit where credit is due.  On the House side, Rahm Emanuel, head of the DCCC, has done an excellent job in recruiting top shelf candidates who could attract the financing necessary to stay competitive against incumbents.

And it is clear that the DCCC picked its races carefully, targeting competitive open seats, northeastern, moderate Republicans, and contesting races in the battleground states of Ohio and Florida, and increasingly friendly Colorado and Arizona.

Consider that by targeting 14 races in very “blue” New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut alone, the Democrats would be one seat away from a majority if they won every contest. A sign that potential Democratic gains are not so much about new ground for the Party, but a further consolidation of the Red-Blue divide that is apparent on the presidential level.

It is ironic that in targeting moderate Republicans, the Democrats are potentially strengthening conservative Republicans, whom they blame for the partisan impasse in Congress.

In the Senate, Senator Chuck Shumer has also done a good job where strong Democratic candidates are seriously contesting seats in Montana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and Missouri.

Missed Good News:

The strength of the opposition as well as the issues, antics and intrigue on the Republican side, have generally obscured what has otherwise been impressive and meaningful performance by the US economy that should benefit the Republicans.

Unemployment is at a five year low, inflation is negligible, interest rates are moderate, and growth and productivity advances are solid. The Dow is over 12,000, and President Bush’s 2004 pledge to cut the deficit in half in four years has been accomplished in two.

Despite recession, an attack on the homeland and two wars that occurred on the Republicans’ watch, the US economy has led the world in growth and jobs. If not for Iraq and the “drive by” media’s barely disguised support for the Democratic Party, there is little reason to believe that voters would not recognize that the US economy is operating at near peak performance, a result of Republican policies and management for which they are not getting credit.

Assessing the Electorate:

So, what do voters think?

The White House and Congressional leaders have kept up a brave face, betting on continued Republican control of Congress. Still, polling has been steady for nearly a year indicating that it is not if the Democrats control the House (and potentially the Senate), but by how much.

The “drive by media” increasingly compares Republican loses to damage wrought by hurricanes and tsunamis.

Is a Democratic wave inevitable?  Two issues bear additional scrutiny in this regard

Generic Ballot v. the Real Deal:

Since September 2005, polls have consistently picked the Democrats as the Party that should control Congress.

As recently as October 9th, they led by 23 points. Surveys published yesterday indicate that by a margin as little as six or as high a 16, voters continue to favor the Democrats. But how does that square with voters’ opinions of their own congressional representative?  The ABC News-Washington Post poll out yesterday indicated that voters, while disapproving of Congress, decisively support their own member, 56%-35%.  A clear case of “throw the other guy’s bum out.”

So, who’s right?  It can’t be both.

Polls v. Action:

According to the Post poll, 71% of respondents – registered voters in this case – said they always vote in midterm elections, with 17% saying they nearly always do.  That would mean that up to 88% of registered voters would be going to the polls on Tuesday.  But consider that in 2002, the last midterm election, only 40% of the eligible voters cast ballots. Where is the discrepancy?  And is this the opportunity for the much-heralded Republican GOTV effort will have its impact?

Iraq:

It is the number one issue for voters, according to a number of surveys. Yet, in the Post poll, voters were evenly divided on who would do a better job in Iraq, 42%-42%.  Does that negate the anti-war, Democratic advantage on the issue?

With conflicting data in the polls, the question is who and what do you believe? Is there a way to determine outcomes in advance with quantifiable data?

A New Model:

The Soapbox was motivated to see if there is a way to capture voter intentions without considering individual issues such as Iraq or scandal. To predict individual election outcomes, without including individual polling data on the race as a reference point.

What has been developed is model based on quantifiable static and dynamic reference points that attempt to capture candidate intensity, the political culture of a community, the underlying economic reality of the community and its current attitudes towards political leadership.  The model has eleven reference points, grouped into four categories.

Candidate Intensity:

By reviewing total candidate fundraising and comparing it to cash on hand at the end of the race, you can assess the incumbent/challenger’s strength and prospects. Challengers who out raise opponents demonstrate incumbent weakness. Incumbents who significantly out raise challengers demonstrate their own support.

Political Culture:

By reviewing which presidential candidate carried the district and the state in 2004, you can assess the political leanings of different constituencies. By comparing the 2002-2004 margin of victory of incumbent congressmen, you can detect evolving trends in Party and candidate support.

Economic Reality:

National economic news is relevant in elections only when it is compared to local economic conditions. By reviewing national versus state unemployment numbers and national versus state gross domestic product figures, you can determine whether a district or state is lagging behind or doing better than the national economy. This is a good predictor of voter attitude toward the economy, and incumbents.

Political Approval:

By reviewing the approval ratings for the state governor, you can determine conditions in the state. By reviewing President Bush’s approval rating in the state, you can get a local take the national political environment.

The Process:

All the data comes from reputable sources.  The Almanac of American Politics provided election figures. Survey USA provided its 50 state poll of gubernatorial and presidential approval ratings, current for October. The website www.tray.com provided information on fundraising, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Department of Commerce provided the economic statistics.

The data was assessed through nine comparative categories in a five-point (-2 – +2) model that provided a rating for each individual race. The highest theoretical score was +15 or -15.  The closer the race is to zero, the more competitive it is. The model was applied to the races identified by www.realclearpolitics.com as competitive in the House and Senate.

Results for the House:

The model predicted a Democratic gain of 17 seats, a Republican gain of one seat, six ties (those that scored zero and could go either way), and three races referred to here as “anomalies” as the prediction is so at odds with conventional wisdom. Factoring in the ties and anomalies based on current polling, the model forecasts a net Democratic gain of 20 seats, five more than are required to take control of the House.

However, what is interesting here is how close the races are. In addition to six “ties”, the model forecast 11 winners with a score of only 1, meaning these races will be nail biters. They include eight Republicans and three Democrats. These 17 races will likely determine the final control of the House, one way or the other.  It is not a tsunami coming, just a really bad storm.

Results for the Senate:

The model was kinder to Republicans here, predicting that Republicans will hold seats in Virginia, Tennessee and Montana.  Democrats will hold seats in Michigan, Maryland, New Jersey and Minnesota. Interestingly, despite national polling to the contrary, the model predicted ties for races in Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as the closely contested race in Missouri.  Factoring in polling for the ties, the model predicts a 52-48 Republican Senate in January.

So, will it be a bad day for Republicans?  Potentially. It is not too early to say that GOTV efforts will be decisive to the outcome.  And whatever Party is in control on Wednesday morning, the majority in the House will not be big, most likely 10 seats or less if the Democrats win, five or less if the GOP wins.  The term, “unstable majority” will have new resonance in Washington.

The Individual Races:

For your perusing pleasure, the Soapbox attaches the list of races and model-projected outcomes.  Red lines are Republican incumbents, blue, Democratic incumbents and yellow are open races with the retiring Member’s name.

Some guesses will seem wildly off, but that’s the model. We will see tomorrow whether Duffy is sage or stooge.  There will be plenty of time to assess the new environment in the nation tomorrow, for now, enjoy.

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