Can the Democrats stay afloat?

Although local and state polls still look gloomy for the GOP, two national surveys say the race is tightening.

Topics: 2006 Elections

Can the Democrats stay afloat?

Just when partisan Democrats were finally allowing themselves to revel in the expectation that they would sweep the House and maybe win the six seats needed for control of the Senate, two national polls released Sunday seemed to sound the first ominous notes from the theme music from “Jaws.”

Both polls showed the gap between Democrats and Republicans dramatically narrowing when likely voters were asked which party they intended to support for Congress. The Washington Post-ABC News poll had the Democrats leading by a 51-to-45-percent margin on the generic ballot question. A new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press had the Democrats ahead among likely voters by 47 to 43 percent. Two weeks ago the margin was 50 to 39 percent. And both surveys put George W. Bush’s approval rating above 40 percent, a rare high-water mark for the beleaguered president.

“The narrowing of the Democratic lead raises questions about whether the party will win a large enough share of the popular vote to recapture control of the House of Representatives,” the Pew Research Center stated in releasing the poll. Because the Democratic vote is clustered in many one-sided inner-city congressional districts, analysts believe that the Democrats need a 5- or 6-point spread on the generic ballot to translate that margin into the 15-seat pickup that would make Nancy Pelosi speaker.

What is going on here?

If you turned on the talking-head shows on Sunday morning television, you would have heard more talk about tsunamis than at a convention of Asian weather forecasters. This has been a year when aquatic metaphors about Democratic tidal waves and flood tides have replaced the usual horse-race analogies that dominate political discourse. But could the widely forecast Democratic sea surge amount to just a few gentle waves lapping on the shores of the Republican majority?

That is the puzzle 48 hours before the actual votes begin rolling in. State and local polls — especially for those House races in which reliable survey data is available — still point to a dramatic Democratic sweep. Interviews about individual House districts with campaign operatives, political science professors and other experts from around the country point toward the same win-back-the-House conclusion. But in covering politics, there is always a danger that comes from sticking with the conventional wisdom a beat too long if the public mood suddenly begins to shift.

There have been discrepancies between national polls and local data before. “I keep thinking back to 1980 when state-by-state polls in the Washington Post proved to be more accurate than those on the national level,” said Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to the national poll takers who missed the extent of the Reagan landslide. Still, in a conversation Sunday after the Pew poll was released, she recommended being “a little cautious” in making any sweeping predictions in light of the contradictory data. A Democratic pollster also said, “The tightening is to be expected since the Republicans are getting their base back.”

In Ohio late last week, giddy Democrats kept telling me about internal party tracking polls that showed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland walloping Republican Ken Blackwell by a 33-percentage-point margin. Downcast Republicans also admitted that their private surveys pointed to a similar wipeout up and down the ballot.

These numbers were underscored Sunday when the Columbus Dispatch released its final statewide poll, a mail survey conducted over a 10-day period ending Friday. Blackwell, a passionate social conservative out of step with the mainstream Republicanism of Ohio, is losing by more than a 2-to-1 margin. The Dispatch poll also gave Democratic Senate challenger Sherrod Brown a stunning 62-to-38-percent lead over two-term incumbent Mike DeWine, a middle-of-the-road Republican who has always run well in the state. Small wonder that the Democrats are favored to win at least three Ohio congressional seats, including the Columbus-based district of Deborah Pryce, who holds the No. 4 post in the House Republican leadership.

Despite the narrowing of the national polls, there are still signs that voters in the Northeast may be prepared to jettison long-serving Republican incumbents in a recoil against Bush that could be called the blue-state backlash. Three Connecticut Republicans (Nancy Johnson, Chris Shays and Rob Simmons) with a collective 25 terms in Congress all are locked in tight races and could lose their seats. Scandal-plagued New York Republicans could also go down. Especially Tom Reynolds, who had advance knowledge of Mark Foley’s inappropriate interest in underage male congressional pages, and John Sweeney, who was in the awkward position of admitting in the week before the election that police came to his house last December in response to what may have been a domestic-violence complaint. A Siena (College) Research Institute poll, conducted last week, found Sweeney now trailing his Democratic challenger, Kirsten Gillibrand, while the four-term GOP incumbent held a 14-point lead in a similar poll two weeks earlier.

New Hampshire’s Charlie Bass, first elected to the House in 1994, was another Republican thought to be invulnerable to national trends. But a daily tracking poll, sponsored by TV station WMUR and the University of New Hampshire, now shows Bass trailing Democrat Paul Hodes 47 to 38 percent. “I think the president and Iraq are serving as an anchor on Bass this time,” said political scientist Dante Scala, who teaches at St. Anselm College. “He’s pulled out his old playbook — that he’s independent and his own man. But Bass has never run in an environment this toxic.”

It can be argued that the Bush White House was, in effect, writing off the Northeast when it allowed Dick Cheney to go on ABC Sunday morning to defend the war: “If the United States bails out on Iraq now, if we pack it in and leave now, we’ll put at risk all the progress we’ve made,” Cheney said, insisting Tuesday’s election results wouldn’t change the administration’s resolve on the war. The vice president’s goal was presumably to motivate the GOP base in more conservative climes. Yet even Saddam Hussein’s conveniently timed death sentence may backfire in the Northeast, a region where Republicans want to erase any mention of Iraq from the headlines in the hours leading up to the election. As Dave Boomer, Nancy Johnson’s campaign manager in Connecticut’s hard-fought 5th District, explained, “We took a dip last week when Iraq really exploded. But I think we’re back.”

The truth is that — with unreliable or nonexistent polling in most House districts — virtually everyone in politics is flying blind as we enter into the desperate hours before Election Day. Maybe the Republicans will manage once again to escape from the jaws of defeat with their vaunted 72-hour program to boost GOP turnout. Interviewed in Ohio last week, Ken Mehlman, the Republican national chairman, said confidently, “We have a better operation than we did in ’04 in terms of our ability to target voters and reach out to them.” The report on the Pew poll buttressed this theory by noting, “Republicans have become more engaged and enthused in the election than they have been in September and October.”

Democratic activists may not be able to emotionally survive another election night like 2004, which for many began with gleeful expectation that John Kerry would be president and ended with desperate plans to enter an ashram in Nepal. The level of despair if the Republicans manage to hang onto both houses of Congress could only be described by a Sophocles or an Aeschylus. The odds still favor the Democrats winning the needed 15 House seats and — depending on how you read the polls — the Senate is not out of reach. But, make no mistake, it is going to be a bumpy ride for the next 48 hours.

Walter Shapiro is Salon's Washington bureau chief. A complete listing of his articles is here.

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