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On one hand, tide is rolling Dems way

Each new poll elicits more excitement among Democrats while deepening Republicans’ depression. If the national political environment alone determines electoral outcomes, 2006 is shaping up as a banner year for Democrats.

Each new poll elicits more excitement among Democrats while deepening Republicans’ depression. If the national political environment alone determines electoral outcomes, 2006 is shaping up as a banner year for Democrats.

Put today’s numbers in historical context and it is easy to see a major wave building.

Two questions have measured the national mood over several decades, and both indicate it is almost as sour as it was on the eve of the Democratic debacle of 1994. Then, in response to the now-classic Dick Wirthlin question, just 28-30 percent said the country was on the right track. Today, 30-35 percent hold that view.

Gallup’s question, which asks about satisfaction with the country’s direction, affords another measure of the national mood. In 1994, 30 percent were satisfied. When George W. Bush eked out a two-point victory over John Kerry, 44 percent were satisfied. Today that number stands at 35 percent.

While these questions reflect the broad tenor of public feeling, presidential approval has a decidedly political caste and has been closely, though not perfectly, correlated with incumbent-party losses in midterm elections.

By any standard, Bush and his party are in trouble. When Democrats lost 54 House seats in 1994, 38 percent approved of President Clinton’s performance. Today 38 percent approve of the way this president is handling his job. Harry Truman’s approval rating was a nearly identical 39 percent in 1950 when Democrats lost 29 seats, while Ronald Reagan was at 42 percent when his party lost 26 seats in 1982. Indeed, since the advent of polling, no president with an approval rating below 50 percent has lost fewer than the 15 seats Democrats need to retake the House.

The generic vote also reflects the pro-Democratic trend in the electorate. While overused, this question does reflect basic partisan orientations. Democrats’ current 15-point lead is larger than either party has had in more than a decade. In November 1994, Republicans led by five to six points.

In even more dramatic contrast to 1994, Democrats enjoy an advantage on almost every issue. Just before Election Day 1994, Republicans held a 12-point lead over Democrats as the party better able to deal with the economy. Today, Democrats have a 10-point edge. What was a seven-point margin for Democrats on healthcare a dozen years ago is now a 22-point lead. On reform, the parties were essentially even in 1994. Now Democrats are seen as the party of reform by 13 points.

Recognizing that domestic issues are a GOP disaster area, presidential adviser Karl Rove has signaled that his party hopes to be rescued again by national security. However, this now-familiar Republican life raft is sinking fast in the waters off Dubai.

Going into the 2002 elections, the GOP held a vast 29-point advantage over Democrats as the party better able to deal with terrorism. That margin has declined dramatically, to just five points. On Iraq, Republicans’ nine-point lead in 2002 has been transformed into a three-point Democratic advantage.

With an environment this favorable for Democrats, doubters are left worrying that too few seats are “in play.” They too ignore history. Many of those swept away in waves of this kind are not “vulnerable” by traditional measures. More than a third of the Democratic House incumbents defeated in 1994 had garnered more than 55 percent of the vote two years before. Almost a fifth had received more than 60 percent.

If the political environment determines election outcomes, 2004 should result in a sea change.

Next week: the other hand.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.