By Stuart Rothenberg
This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 9, 2002.
Political prognosticating these days is a bit like trying to predict the track of an Atlantic hurricane as it approaches the coast.
The storm could simply churn offshore before going out to sea (doing littel damage to the most vulnerable), or it could veery off into any of four different states, causing anything from light damage to devastation to those at the most risk.
In this year's fight for the House, the evidence supporting a heavy damage scenario for the Republicans is accumulating.
While Wall Street has bounced back from its late July (Dow Industrials) and early August (NASDAQ) lows, all of the major stock market indices are way down from their record highs. Unemployment is up, real economic growth was a sluggish 1.1 percent in the second quarter of this year and consumer confidence, which has remained surprisingly upbeat over the past year, may be ebbing.
Moreover, the national agenda seems to have turned away from the war on terrorism and back to domestic issues, many of which favor the Democrats.
All of this has undoubtedly contributed to the growing sense of worry in this country that pollsters have identified. A plurality of Americans already believe that the country is on the "wrong track," certainly a change from the sense of national unity and optimism that was evident during the winter and spring.
President Bush's job approval numbers have suffered because of all of this, and Democratic voters seem more energized and partisan than they did just six months ago.
Even if additional bad news between now and November 5 doesn't add to a sense that the future will be worse than the present, another nine weeks of talk of a delayed economic recovery and a growing federal deficit, possible war against Saddam Hussein (and differences within the GOP of whether or not to invade Iraq) and alleged Republican efforts to destroy Social Security, combined with the public's concern about the direction of the country, could easily produce a "normal" midterm election that would give the Democrats control of the House and the Senate for the next two years.
While the Republicans ahve done an effective job neutralizing two Democratic issues, prescription drugs and corporate accountability, Social Security remains a potentially effective theme for the Democrats.
But, under the "heavy damage" scenario, the Democrats don't really need specific winning issues. They merely need to take advantage of a general sense of dissatisfaction or worry that leads voters to "send a message" to the president that they aren't comfortable with the status quo.
The minimal damage scenario has its own logic too, and it is difficult to dismiss out of hand.
While the stock market is down and the economy is iffy, Americans are acting and sounding as if they don't feel an economic squeeze. In fact, refinancing has lowered monthly mortgage payments, take-home pay is up and consumers have continued to spend.
The most recent unemployment data, release late last week, actually contained good news for the country and for Bush, since the unemployment rate dipped to 5.7 percent in August.
Older voters may be concerned about the near-term shape of the stock market, but younger voters seem to take a longer term view of the economy and Wall Street. Few people are panicking at the stock market's weakness, and Americans don't seem to be looking for a domestic sacrificial lamb to blame for deficit spending.
While Americans are now saying that the country is headed off on the wrong track, we still haven't seen much evidence that they are blaming the president of the Republican Party for that fact. GOP candidates across the country, as a group, have not seen their "reelect" poll numbers drop or their standing in hypothetical general election ballot tests start to deteriorate.
The "minimal damage" scenario argues that the current partisan fallout - or lack of partisan fallout - will continue through to November. With the Democrats robbed of anything approaching a "normal" midterm effect, the national election becomes a series of individual contests. This benefits the GOP, which currently has a slight advantage based on a race-by-race assessment of competitive districts.
The renewed focus on international issues (terrorism and a possible attack on Iraq) could once again divert voter attention away from domestic issues, including the economy. That could also increase the liklihood of the "minimal damage" scenario.
Which scenario is more likely? I've thought for a number of weeks that the Republicans couldn't dodge the political hurricane completely. Voters always look to place blame for problems, and I've assumed that sooner or later - probably not until mid or late October - the president would take at least a modest hit for the economy or Wall Street slump.
But in at least one respect, I am wondering about my own assumptions. For if voters are to punish the president and his party, they would first have to change the way they are currently thinking and behaving. Without events or new data to jar them into making that change, voters may not blame Bush before November.
Monday, September 09, 2002
By Stuart Rothenberg