Will The GOP Retain Control?

Michael Barone argues that there’s a good chance that the GOP will retain control of the House. On the other hand Richard Morin of The Washington Post argues that the political map doesn’t look good for the GOP.

Morin makes the argument we’ve all heard: a deeply unpopular President means GOP failure. The problem with that line of reasoning is that the approval rating of the President doesn’t seem to have a great deal to do with Congressional ballots these days. Barone explains:

In the five House elections from 1996 to 2004, there has been very little variation in the popular vote percentages for both parties. The Republican percentage of the popular vote for the House has fluctuated between 49 and 51 percent, the Democratic percentage between 46 and 48.5 percent.

This has been true despite great differences in the job ratings of the parties’ leading figures. Republicans won pluralities of the popular vote for the House in 1996 and 1998, when Bill Clinton’s job rating was high and the favorability ratings of the highly visible Newt Gingrich were very low. Clinton’s job rating was high in 2000, too, but Republicans still won the popular vote 49 percent to 48 percent. In 2002, when George W. Bush’s job rating was up around 70 percent, Republicans won 51 percent of the popular vote for the House. In 2004, when his job rating was around 50 percent, Republicans won 50 percent.

These numbers seem inconsistent with Hypothesis One. How to explain them? We have a highly polarized politics that divides us along cultural lines. Those cultural divisions tend to be more important to voters than their ratings of presidents’ and parties’ performance. The polarization is exacerbated by the fact that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both happen to have personal characteristics — I don’t have to spell them out, do I? — that people on the other side of the cultural divide absolutely loathe.

The pollsters, I think, aren’t seeing the big picture here. The Republicans aren’t in trouble because of Bush, they’re in trouble because the drop in the President’s approval ratings are coming from the Republican base. The GOP leadership has been utterly rudderless on immigration and spending, two of the key issues in this election cycle. There are a number of GOP voters who are just going to stay home on Election Day unless the GOP gets some cojones and starts pushing for some serious immigration and spending reform.

Of course, that doesn’t seem very likely at this point, meaning that the worse enemy the Republicans face in 2006 isn’t the hapless Democratic Party, it’s their own political weakness. In fact, at this point, one of the few things that can save the Republican Party would be the Democrats actually saying what they feel – the more unhinged the Democrats show themselves to be, the more fence-sitting Republicans and swing voters will feel obligated to go to the polls. It’s not a very good position to be in, but right now the only thing that the Republicans have is the insanity of their opposition – and that may simply not be enough.

The GOP needs a new Contract with America, a renewed committment to lowering spending, fighting illegal immigration, vigorously prosecuting the war, and fighting for less government rather than more. The GOP is missing a golden opportunity to link the widespread (and correct) view that the US tax system is profoundly unfair to the need to reform the IRS and make the President’s tax cuts permanent. Unfortunately, the current GOP leadership doesn’t have the vision to make that case.

When the GOP starts to lose George Will because they won’t stand up for political speech, you know they have a problem – and a big one. Like the Democrats, the Republicans are their own worst enemies, and when voters have a choice between Feckless Incompetence and Incompetent Fecklessness, whichever side wins, we all end up losing.

At this point, the battle is about which party will implode first – which is hardly a ringing endorsement for America’s political system these days. While I don’t think the Democrats will be able to pick up 15 seats and retake the House, it is possible, which is why GOP strategists should start seriously thinking about the fecklessness that is alienating the base they need to win.

3 thoughts on “Will The GOP Retain Control?

  1. I’m not buying the argument that Republican voters “are just gonna stay home”. Today’s high-volume blogosphere, months-long TV advertising blitzes, and well-oiled GOTV machines will hammer into the heads of the faithful that “a Nancy Pelosi America could be upon us” and I suspect the vast majority of registered GOPers will respond accordingly. In the post-Karl Rove America, political engagement among partisans is so much stronger than anytime in the late 20th century that I’m not anticipating the kinds of low voter turnout rates we seen back then, particularly in the midterms.

    On the other hand, the Democrats need independent voters to swing their way by more than 2-1 margins if they’re gonna win the House. Francine Busby’s underwhelming performance in the CA-50 special election last Tuesday didn’t make that scenario seem overly optimistic. She overperformed John Kerry in the district in 2004, but just barely, and it does not look good at all for her in the runoff having to pick up six percentage points worth of Republican voters from last week. There’s a risk of reading too much into one special election in southern California fresh off of a white-hot immigration debate that probably hurt Busby in the district, but a loss of more than five points by Busby certainly won’t give the Dems the kind of momentum they’re hoping for.

    The wheels are in motion for the Dems to pick up 15 seats….no question about it. If internal polls are to be even partially believed, three neighboring districts in the heart of red America (IN-08, IN-09, and KY-04) and poised to unseat Republican incumbents. However, the Dems will almost certainly have to sweep these three races for the arithmatic to work out in their favor. There’s very little margin for error unless some GOP-held pink districts in places like New Jersey become unexpectedly competitive. And the Dems have a number of seats they’ll have to fight to hold, including but not limited to GA-08, IL-08, IA-03 and TX-17. If the Dems lose more than two incumbents, they’re probably toast.

    While the Dems are more optimistic about their chances in the House (and the GOP more worried) than they were a month ago, I have to say I’m less so. They need close to a perfect game to gain control, and I’m not sure the current crew is capable of it, nor am I sure the voter turnout formula (a surplus of independents, a deficit of GOP partisans) can be expected to work out as needed.

  2. Writing on a similar theme, Randall Parker at ParaPundit gets right to the heart of the problem: “On key issues the elites of the two parties are closer to each other than they are to their bases.”

    That is at the root of the intense anger and frustration that saturates our political life. We have a deeply entrenched two-party system, yet neither party represents any broad coalition of voters. The lawmakers, for all their ritual denunciations of the other party, don’t really disagree about principles. They (along with the federal judiciary) are both part of the Liberal Establishment. Their constituency is Washington, not the states or districts they nominally represent.

    Both parties’ strategists realize, I think, that they command no loyalty based on service to the folks back home, so the question becomes, whose votes do we buy? And, ironically, they have both come up with the same answer: let’s flood the country with immigrants, push through amnesty, and lock in power with their votes.

    It’s a stupid strategy, because it assumes that 20 million (soon to be many more, with anchor babies and family unification) semi-literate Hispanic immigrants are going to be loyal to anyone except themselves and Mexico once they are legalized as citizens. But this is the fantasy that both parties are chasing, while driving a wedge through what remains of the United States as a nation rather than a mere legal entity.

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