June dreams, November realities

If this year’s election had been held on June 7 or even Sept. 7, the Democrats probably would have won the House and maybe the Senate. But Election Day is Nov. 7, and a Democratic victory is increasingly uncertain.

Several ominous trends are working against the Democrats, but the most important is the sharp drop in gasoline prices. Instead of sprinting toward the finish line, Democrats seem to be staggering, hoping their opponents don’t have time to catch up. In April, voters told ABC News they favored Democratic candidates over Republicans by a 15-point margin. By Labor Day that advantage had been cut in half.

Republicans still have plenty to worry about. As one GOP strategist told us, “the general issue environment stinks for Republicans.” Gas prices may be down, but the body count in Iraq is mounting daily, and that’s having a huge impact on swing voters. In the latest Pew Research Center poll, almost half of all independents said that using force in Iraq was a mistake, and those unaffiliated voters favored Democrats over Republicans by 14 points.

Republicans are still suffering from the Katrina Effect. GOP pollster Linda DiVall says that White House bungling badly damaged the party’s reputation for “leadership and accountability.” Independent voters, she said, “couldn’t believe this was happening in our country.”

And in general, the nation’s mood remains sour, a bad sign for a party that holds total power in Washington. “This is an election full of outrage,” says Andy Kohut of Pew.

But gas prices have been a key reason for that outrage, and they’ve declined about 50 cents a gallon in less than two months. A softening world oil market foreshadows a continuing downward trend, and the political implications are enormous.

This is an unusually powerful issue because it affects most folks directly, when they fill up their car or just drive past a station. A month ago, 15 percent of voters surveyed by ABC named gas prices as the top issue facing the country; today that number is down to 5 percent. Since voters who focus on this issue favor Democrats by 20 points, it’s clear that any decline of public concern can only boost Republicans.

The renewed focus on terrorism is also bolstering GOP chances. President Bush’s sustained campaign to emphasize the threat to “our children” and “our homes” has had a significant impact. An ABC survey a month ago gave Democrats a seven-point edge in handling terrorism; today Republicans hold a similar advantage. And voters who cite terrorism as the main problem facing the country favor Republicans by a stunning 5-to-1 margin.

Republicans have been struggling to find an issue that galvanizes their base, demoralized by the dismal news from Iraq, and they think they’ve found it: cracking down on illegal immigrants. As political scapegoats, undocumented workers are just about perfect: they break the law, use public services, don’t speak English and don’t vote.

“There’s enormous frustration out there,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres, and Republicans are furiously stoking those fears. In the long run this tactic could be a disaster, since Hispanics are the fastest-growing swing vote in American politics, but Republicans are worried about winning this year. Period.

The changing issue landscape is so damaging to Democrats because they were already facing huge structural hurdles. With most Congressional districts drawn to favor one party or the other, only about 40 are truly up for grabs. Since Republicans hold a 15-seat edge, Democrats have to win 3-out-of-4 contested races to gain the majority.

Republicans will also have a sizeable money advantage, and most GOP candidates have hoarded their cash, preparing for a last-minute advertising blitz. And that blitz is going to be negative and nasty. A memo written by Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma and published by the Washington Post reveals the Republicans’ cold-blooded strategy: demonize your opponent in any way possible.

Among his suggestions: invest in research that reveals your opponents “weaknesses inside out – and then exploit them.” Do that by keeping “the tough ads running right up to Election Day.” Don’t make the “mistake” of saying anything “positive,” just keep up the attack. This is an old Republican ploy, and Democrats vow they won’t be “swift-boated” again. Their track record in fending off smear campaigns, however, is hardly encouraging.

Democrats can still win in November. But that outcome is far less likely than it was a few months or even a few weeks ago.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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