The media, as always, is looking for a horse race so we’ve seen a flurry of headlines recently about a Republican “resurgence” in the race for control of Congress. It is no surprise the margin is tightening. Historically, as you get closer to Election Day, base voters begin to come home to their party. Independents begin to think of the election less in terms of “sending a message.” So it is natural the race will tighten.
The most significant message from all the tea leaves being read is that nothing has really changed that much. Republican pollster Steve Lombardo reported this week that he averaged 11 national polls looking for the change in President Bush’s approval rating in the last six weeks. He found the average was a 2 percent improvement. Similarly a Democracy Corps memo finds that in a generic congressional vote Democrats have slipped all of two points in the past four months. The party still holds an eight-point advantage in the generic vote.
Given what has happened in the political environment things remain very stable. Gasoline prices have dropped significantly, and the issue has nearly dropped off the radar screen of most voters. The stock market has gone through a boomlet, although it usually takes four to six weeks for Wall Street’s enthusiasm to make it to Main Street. Terrorist arrests and the messy halt to hostilities in Lebanon have pushed the war in Iraq at least below the fold if not off the front page. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iran’s Ahmadinejad have blustered bombastic from Havana to the United Nations, reminding Americans that there really are bad guys out there. All that and the bulk of the polling data move two points.
Americans are still in the mood for change. They are frustrated with how the war in Iraq is being managed and that conflict remains the number-one issue in most polling. Voters are still disgusted with the tone in Washington and the performance of the Congress. The President’s approval rating is stuck at 25 points lower than it was at this point in the last midterm elections and 25 points lower than President Clinton’s was in 1998. The country is still in the mood for a dramatic change of direction, and open to putting Democrats in power for the final two years of the Bush administration.
But Democrats must find a cohesive message to justify voters’ doing something about their frustrations. I haven’t counted, but by one count, Democrats have floated seven different campaign themes in the last year ranging from “Culture of Corruption” to “Together America Can Do Better.” Obviously, nothing has stuck. I can’t remember most of the clumsy attempts at defining a story line and neither can most voters. The only constant in this election cycle seems to be that Democrats are running against the President and Republicans are running away from him.
The candidates with the best story win elections. “Here is the mess we are in and here’s how I’m going to get us out of it.” I’ve argued here before that Democrats should directly confront the Bush administration on national security. The story line is a simple one: The President and his rubber stamp Congress have made us less safe in this dangerous world. They’ve diverted our resources to a war in Iraq that was a mistake, we’re losing that struggle, and the country is slipping into civil war and has become a breeding ground for terrorism. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda operate with impunity from a sanctuary ceded him by our government and our allies. The Taliban is gaining ground in Afghanistan. Democrats will make America more secure. They’ll fully implement the 9-11 Commission recommendations, strengthen security in our ports and on our borders, cooperate fully with other nations in locking down loose nuclear material and, most importantly, make independence from foreign oil our top national priority. Energy independence, jobs, health care, education and a truly secure America. That’s what Democrats stand for.
That’s a credible story and it is one Americans want to hear and believe. If they deliver it, Democrats have a chance to win control of at least the House. If they continue to just rely on Bush’s low marks it is likely enough moderates and independents will drift back to the Republican column to give the GOP two more years of control. This election is the Democrats’ to lose. Unless they get their story straight, odds are they’ll do just that.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.