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The Lay of the Land in 2006

By Larry Sabato and David Wasserman

The drumbeat has become the daily background noise in most Beltway political circles, as pervasive as it is percussive. It echoes on today, just as it has for well over a month: in just 40 days and 40 nights, Democrats will wake up to find that they have emerged from four years in the wilderness, having gained the necessary seats in one or both chambers of Congress to win a legislative check on President Bush and restore divided control of government.

But not so fast! Yes, back at the beginning of last month, the Crystal Ball observed surer signs of a Democratic "micro-wave" gathering strength on its way to "macro-wave" status. And don't get us wrong, the minority party remains poised to reap sizeable gains in Senate seats, House seats, and governorships, especially in places where the weakest Republican targets have seemed in danger of getting swept out to sea for many months. But with six weeks left to go until the midterm madness draws to a close, the Crystal Ball sees several indications that the tide may be turning back in the GOP's favor--at least temporarily. Furthermore, some states are starting to look a lot less susceptible to a pro-Democratic tidal wave than others---in other words, at least some Republican property lies on higher, safer ground.

Since around the time of the fifth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks upon America, Republicans have clearly caught a few breaks. First and foremost, the rebound in President Bush's approval ratings over the last few weeks has struck us as both stable and perceptible, if tiny, across the average of reputable national surveys. Whereas his job performance approval mark lingered in the mid-to-high 30's all summer, we suspect the figure is now hovering more closely around 40 percent--still dismal within the historical context of presidents in their sixth year, but slightly less calamitous than before. The slightly improved ratings have given many Republicans new hopes that the campaigner-in-chief will be able to reappear on the campaign trail to help soothe the sixth-year itch.

Such an up-tick, though small, reflects the perpetuation of a trend we have now seen at work in each of the three most recent federal election cycles: a modest-to-severe sharpening of national focus onto terrorism and national security, clearly Bush and the GOP's most dependable strong suit, during the second-to-last month of each campaign season. Regardless of congressional Republicans' ability to pass the most sacred provisions of their terror bill during the recent month-long session billed as "Security September," the slogan more appropriately describes the month's biennial election agenda-setting tendencies. To many a Democrat's chagrin, "Security September" has fairly or unfairly become a fixture of our early 21st Century politics.

The Crystal Ball would also note that within the framework of the month's predominant theme of national security, President Bush may have been shrewd to intensify and increase his rhetorical linkage of the War on Terror to the fight against Nazi Germany in World War II. The association is bound to strike a chord with older Americans for whom a costly and prolonged military struggle with an abhorrent enemy is a familiar and powerful memory. As the president's political advisors are well aware, older voters turn out to vote at a much higher rate than younger voters to begin with, but the resonance of such an appeal in 2006 is especially critical: voters over age 50 account for an even larger percentage of the electorate in midterm years than they do in presidential years.

So how important is a jump in Bush approval from mid-to-high thirties to high thirties-to-low forties? The difference may seem miniscule, but it cannot be overlooked. For one, it represents a stabilization and possible directional change in his popularity. But 40 days out from Election Day, it seems that 40 percent approval may be the very watermark at which control of Congress is determined in a "wave" election year. The phenomenon can also be thought of as a tug of war in which 40 percent may be a line of demarcation for control: even a tiny change in approval could be enough to shift the votes necessary to move the determinative seats in our "Ferocious Forty" toward one party or the other (Oh, and by the way, have we mentioned the number 40 enough today?).

Another modest boost for Republican congressional prospects promises to be the falling price of oil, the high price of which has contributed to voter unease on a grand scale throughout the 2006 cycle. The relatively precipitous decline coinciding with the conclusion of the summer driving season has helped the GOP in two ways. First, it has helped to calm many voters' nerves and has contributed to increased public confidence in the general strength of the economy. Second, it has blunted the potential impact and effectiveness of Democratic ads attacking incumbent Republican legislators for "siding with big oil" and not doing enough to combat price gouging. Make no mistake: the emergence of sub-$2.00-a-gallon gasoline comes as a very welcome development for just about everyone except Democratic candidates and campaign committees, who have "pumped" a fortune into independent expenditure ads to seize on oil anxieties.

To be sure, the list of potential developments and events that could restore momentum to the oncoming Democratic wave is considerable: fallout from declassification of the National Intelligence Estimate finding its way into effective Democratic attacks and more turns for the worse in Iraq damaging the GOP are just two possibilities. But the list of possible pro-Republican October surprises is equally long, if not longer: an administration nudge to oil companies to drop prices fast (no wait, that's a SEPTEMBER surprise!), a surprising announcement mid-October that a big chunk of troops will be leaving by year's end because of "improving conditions," whether true or not (and the troops can be left in after the election), and an executive order implementing some of Bush's positions on immigration (constitutional? The courts will decide AFTER the election) are some of our favorite stabs in the dark.

The point is this: elections are a one-day clearance sale. You either sell on that one day or you don't. Your opponent can be leading 364 days of the year, but as long as you are ahead on one day, November 7th, by one vote, you win. That's why a grand SERIES of October surprises leading up to Nov. 7th can work, because the White House can make things happen, or APPEAR to make things happen, just when it matters most. Timing is everything, and the White House political team has understood this well, managing the political game clock to victory in two successive elections. It's within the realm of possibilities that they could find a way to frustrate Democrats grandly a third time.

Keeping these considerations in mind, the Crystal Ball has not yet changed its outlook from last month to project larger Democratic gains. Contrary to the prognostications of several other observers, we continue to see Democrats on the cusp of regaining congressional majorities at the UPPER end of their expected gains: if the election were held today, the party currently out of power would likely net 12-15 seats in the House (+15 needed for control) and 3-5 seats in the Senate (+6 needed for control). At the gubernatorial level, Democrats remain favored pick up 4 to 6 additional states' top jobs, for a grand total of 26-28 governorships (and unfortunately for the Democrats, it's the majority that doesn't matter!).

In predicting the outcome of the 2006 midterm madness, it's critically important to point out that some states' Republicans seem far more likely than others' to ride out a strong Democratic wave unscathed. The uneven lay of the political land in this volatile year means that while only a national "micro-wave" would be needed to wash away Republican seats in some states, a "macro-wave" would be necessary to engulf Republicans and sweep Democrats to gains in others.

Dr. Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, founded the Center for Politics in 1998. David Wasserman is the Crystal Ball's House Editor.

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