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Pros Say Voters May Not Choose Until the End

Less than two months before the 2004 elections, party strategists on both sides of the aisle caution that events beyond the political sphere make predicting November’s winners and losers a fool’s errand at this stage.

With terrorists making no secret of their desire to strike either within the United States or at U.S. interests abroad before the election and the strength of the economy remaining a major bone of contention, the defining sentiment in this election is “anxiety,” according to Greg Stevens, a Republican media consultant, who works for Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm.

“There is tremendous anxiety on the part of people regarding the economy in the United States,” said Stevens. “A lot of people still support the president and the goal [of the war in Iraq], but they are getting tired of not seeing too many victories.”

The anxiety felt by voters is paralleled in the world of political professionals as they attempt to divine the overarching mood of the electorate, an effort complicated by the unpredictability of voter reaction to a potential terrorist attack. “There is nothing a candidate can do about that but to have voted the right way to make us stronger on the war on terrorism,” said Stevens.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Garin Hart Yang Research Inc. agreed that it is difficult to make hard and fast predictions.

“I don’t see any traction or dynamic yet,” said Yang. “If this is going to be a wave for us, it is going to break late.”

Some of the Democrats’ optimism from earlier this summer has dissipated in recent days, as President Bush received a considerable bounce following the Republican National Convention while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) scrambled to cope with the damage done by attacks on his military record.

Kerry’s slippage in the polls concerns Democratic House — and to a lesser extent Senate — strategists, since much of their hopes of taking back control of Congress rest on the political atmospherics on Election Day tilting decisively in their direction. Republicans currently hold a 12-seat majority in the House and just a two-seat margin in the Senate.

Roughly 35 House seats are expected to be seriously contested by both parties, a number that provides Democrats an extremely low margin for error, while 10 Senate races will decide control of that chamber.

Democrats were exuberant earlier in the summer when “generic” Congressional ballot surveys — typically a barometer of voters’ mood — showed their party with leads ranging from high single digits to low double digits. Polls in early August showed 4-point to 8-point margins favoring Democrats.

Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research believes that little has changed in the political environment since the spring, noting that right track/wrong track numbers, the generic ballot and Bush’s “vote share” have all remained remarkably consistent over the past few months.

“I don’t see how the mood changes,” she said.

Republicans are much more skeptical that the current operating political dynamic is likely to stay in place through Nov. 2.

“The election is likely to be decided by events that occur in the last seven to 10 days,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, a partner in Ayres, McHenry & Associates. “In 2000, 15 million people said they made up their mind in the final week.”

That election was roiled by last-minute revelations that Bush had been arrested for drunken driving in the 1970s.

Yang argued that comparisons to 2000 are not apt, as the race between Bush and Kerry has polarized the electorate in a way not previously seen, with very few voters undecided.

“The public is incredibly engaged on the presidential level,” said Yang. “In swing states, even in June it was mid-October.”

There are between 14 and 17 “battleground” states being targeted by both presidential campaigns, although few of them have overlapping top-tier Senate and House races. Even in battleground states that do have competitive downballot races, Yang warned that simply because voters have made a decision on the presidential contest “does not mean that the other races are engaged.”

Still, both parties concede that perhaps more than any time in recent memory, the fate of downballot candidates will be inextricably linked to their respective presidential nominee.

“The presidential campaign and mood of the country are linked together very closely and are going to have a lot to say about the outcome on the Senate and House level,” said Stevens.

In 2002, Bush barnstormed the country on behalf of Senate candidates, spending his political capital on a final push to restore Republicans to the majority they lost when Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) left the GOP in June 2001.

In a shocking result, Republicans picked up two seats, delivering them the Senate majority.

National GOP strategists are hoping for similar success this fall. Though Bush saw his popularity ratings dip significantly over the past 20 months, his recent rise in national polls gives GOP strategists hope that a Republican win on the presidential level could trickle down to help them in downballot races in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington and Florida.

In reliably Republican states playing host to competitive Senate races, there is little question that Bush will be a major asset to GOP candidates, while Kerry will be an anchor to downballot Democrats, argued Ayres.

“In strong red states, you’d better believe it has an effect on Democratic candidates,” he said. “If the president carries a state by a double-digit margin, that is a major drag on a Democrat that is not that well-known.”

Ayres cited the South Carolina Senate race between state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) and Rep. Jim DeMint (R) as an example of the negative trickle-down effect for Democrats. A recent Republican survey showed the Congressman with a 50 percent to 38 percent edge over Tenenbaum, and the Democrat’s campaign has been roiled by staff turnover in the past two months.

“Tenenbaum is doing her best to run away from Kerry but people understand that at the national level, politics is a team sport,” said Ayres.

Senate Democrats must defend five open seats, all in the South — in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. In four of those states Bush is expected to win easily; Florida appears to be tilting toward the president.

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