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New Signs of Trouble for GOP in 2006?

In recent years, I’ve paid less attention to “generic ballot” numbers than I once did, in part because Democrats have held large leads in the national generic ballot only to see setbacks during the 2002 and 2004 elections. However, I can’t ignore what some campaign operatives describe as a noticeable drop recently in the GOP’s generic ballot strength in states across the country. [IMGCAP(1)]

The “generic ballot,” of course, does not test specific candidates in races, but instead asks those being polled whether, if the election were being held today, they would vote for the Republican nominee or the Democratic nominee for a particular office, whether the House, Senate or governor.

The “generic” numbers are meant to test fundamental partisan strength in Congressional districts and states, providing a more up-to-date measure than voter registration numbers (which often lag behind real voting patterns by years) or true ballot tests (which can be distorted by the names of candidates being tested, including the normal advantages of incumbency).

Most, though not all, GOP insiders agree that something has been going on, though they don’t always agree about the magnitude of the slide. Republican operatives seem particularly concerned about generic ballots and the “right direction/wrong track” question, which measures general sentiment and reflects public opinion about the performance of officeholders.

Some call the movement “very significant,” placing the generic ballot drops from a couple of points to as many as 10 points (which is a huge shift by these standards). Others are less alarmed, calling the new data “a slight slippage” that has appeared in a number of different survey questions.

“The political environment is pretty soft right now, and it is having an impact on Republican candidates. We are playing through a slump right now,” one Republican strategist told me recently.

Softness in Republican polling right now would be understandable, given President Bush’s recent poll numbers, high gasoline prices, the nature of the Social Security debate and other problems for the GOP.

If voters have new (or renewed) doubts about the president or his party, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were more hesitant to embrace an unidentified Republican candidate (that is, a “generic” Republican) for the House or the Senate.

But it is far too premature to start writing the GOP’s midterm obituary at this point.

“We’ve seen some movement in the numbers,” agreed one Democratic strategist, adding cautiously, “but it’s based on only sporadic polling. It smells real, but it’s hard to know how real it is.”

Moreover, real elections involve candidates, not partisan labels, and testing party labels means that voters have only one cue — party — with which to evaluate a race.

Since the midterm elections are still 18 months away, the current numbers aren’t necessarily predictive about what will happen in 2006. If gas prices drop, if the economy shows strength without inflation, and if circumstances in Iraq improve, overall sentiment should improve, along with Bush’s numbers and his party’s.

But even if that happens eventually, Democrats could still benefit in the near term from improved candidate recruitment and fundraising, as potential candidates and contributors start feeling optimistic about the 2006 elections.

Conversely, continued weakness in Republican poll numbers and a sense that things are headed off on the wrong track could spur retirements and lead to finger pointing within GOP circles. That could convey a sense of division within Republican ranks and add to the party’s woes going into the second half of 2005, when many potential candidates and incumbents make final decisions about running in the next election.

But as long as we are speculating about 2006, there is one other factor to consider.

While the Republican control of Congress and the White House clearly puts them at greater risk in a period of voter dissatisfaction, Democratic strategists would be wise to keep their antenna up to search for signs of a more general anti-incumbent mood.

Republicans are already complaining that Democrats in Congress have taken the same kinds of trips for which House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is being criticized. And polling on Congress shows that voters give low marks to both Republican and Democratic Members of Congress.

It is possible that another round of ethics finger pointing, combined with a messy fight over judges, followed by a period of gridlock could produce something close to the anti-politics, anti-Congress mood that existed during the early- to mid-1990s.

But while poor “right direction/wrong track” numbers could be a bad omen for all sitting officeholders regardless of party, not all parties would likely suffer equally. Remember, in 1994, at the height of anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment, only one party took the brunt of the public’s anger — the Democrats, who controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.

“This is not a good environment for us to run in,” one Republican told me flatly. I have found no veteran GOP strategists or operatives who flatly disagree.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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