The once-irresistible Democratic political tide seems to be ebbing, and not in the presidential campaign alone. Tim Storey, the sterling political analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, believes Republicans and Democrats have equivalent opportunities to win contested statehouses. In gubernatorial races, the authoritative Cook Political Report finds that Republicans could hold their own or gain a governorship. Even the generic preference of voters for Democrats also shows signs of slippage. In early summer the Democrats led by double-digits when voters were asked which party they preferred to control Congress; the margin is down to four points in an averaging of recent polls. Democrats retain significant strategic advantages in House races — they have only seven open seats to defend compared to 29 for Republicans — but the Cook Political Report now envisions Democratic gains in the low teens, well below spring expectations. Although Democrats are poised to gain Senate seats and tighten their control of the upper house, most analysts anticipate that they will wind up two or three seats short of their original goal of a filibuster-proof 60 seats.
The apparent Republican resurgence has been most pronounced in the presidential contest. In the most recent Gallup and Rasmussen national polls, the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin has pulled even or slightly ahead of the Democratic ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The electoral map is fluid. At least six states that could make the difference are within the margin of polling error, meaning the contest is effectively tied. Whether the Republicans can maintain their momentum is anyone’s guess. “Twenty-four hours is a lifetime in politics,” in the words of Richard Harwood, my late, great editor at The Washington Post, and there are more than 40 days — and three presidential debates — before Election Day.
Legislative elections in many states are particularly close. They’re important, too, because most of the legislators elected in November will participate in the 2011 congressional redistricting that could determine partisan control of Congress for a decade. Storey’s analysis finds that 28 of the 84 legislative chambers with elections this year could change hands and listed 10 states as principal battlegrounds: Delaware, Indiana, Montana, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Of these, the best chance for Democrats is probably in New York, where the switch of a single seat would give them control of the state Senate for the first time since 1966. Democrats also could capture the lower legislative houses in Delaware, Montana, Ohio and Wisconsin and the senate in Nevada, which Republicans hold by a single vote. Storey finds that Republicans have a solid chance of winning the state senates in Oklahoma and Tennessee, both currently tied, and could regain control of the houses in Indiana and Pennsylvania, which they lost two years ago. The GOP also could win the senates in Montana and Wisconsin.
Eleven governorships are being contested, with control unlikely to change except in three of them. In Missouri, Democratic state Attorney General Jay Nixon leads handily in his attempt to win an open governorship being vacated by a Republican. North Carolina and Washington, both governed by Democrats, are rated as toss-ups in the Cook report. Four years ago the Washington race between now-Gov. Christine Gregoire and her Republican challenger, Dino Rossi, was decided by 133 votes and three court decisions. Their rematch race appears equally tight.
Why are there so many close races and why is the Republican presidential ticket so competitive? There are as many theories about this as there are views of Hillary Clinton, but two underlying explanations seem especially useful. The first of these — a point made by Charlie Cook about House contests and by Storey about legislative races — is that Democrats plucked most of the low-hanging political fruit in the 2006 elections, which were disastrous for Republicans. In the wake of these midterm elections, droves of incumbent Republican lawmakers and legislators abruptly discovered that they wanted to spend more time with their families.
The second basic point to make about this election is that the United States remains a closely divided nation. This has been obscured by the unpopularity of President Bush, whose approval ratings hover around 30 percent. Presidents Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter reached lower nadirs in popular esteem, but Bush has been unpopular for a longer period of time, and his low ratings have taken a toll on his party and its candidates. As Bush has faded from the spotlight, Republican prospects have improved — with McCain the most conspicuous beneficiary. Political analyst Michael Barone finds the Democratic theme that McCain is a continuation of Bush an “unsustainable” argument. So far, it has been rejected by independents, a potentially decisive segment of the electorate in which McCain has a 14-point lead over Obama in a recent Gallup survey.
The flip side of McCain’s appeal to independents was always the anxiety he causes among his party’s rank-and-file. McCain has never made conservative hearts go pit-a-pat, and it is the conservatives, religious and secular, who are the dependable foot soldiers of the Republican Party. McCain is only the third nonestablishment Republican to be nominated for the presidency in more than a century — the others, Wendell Willkie and Barry Goldwater, both lost — and he has no field organization worthy of the name. He needed a running mate who excited the base of his party. His choice of Palin did in a single stroke what McCain hadn’t been able to do in a decade. Whether the Palin rocket remains aloft until votes are counted is an open question, but she has kept McCain in the race.
Despite the Republican resurgence, the fundamentals of the 2008 election still favor the Democrats. Although it is doubtful if any president could do much to calm the financial waves that are roiling Wall Street and the world, a shaky economy on balance tends to hurt the nominee of the incumbent party, as a CBS-New York Times Poll indicated last week. One useful historical barometer of political change has been the answer voters give to the question: “Is America heading in the right direction or is it on the wrong track.” In the latest average of poll responses to this question in RealClearPolitics, 73 percent say wrong track, roughly the percentage of voters who felt that way in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency and Republicans swept into control of the Senate.
Early this year, when Obama was inspiring millions of new voters to participate in politics, his resonant appeals for national restoration were reminiscent of Reagan, whom Obama praised as a national leader in one of his memoirs. Perhaps as the campaign progresses, Obama will borrow Reagan’s 1980 battle cry: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” It would be fitting, for the line was a paraphrase of one used by the greatest of Democratic presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this column, however, we make no predictions. There are more than 40 days of political lifetimes left in this election and as Gov. Pat Brown once quipped in a burst of irrefutable political insight: “The future of the country lies ahead.”
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.