In 1998, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich confidently predicted that the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton’s sale of U.S. military secrets to China for campaign cash would net Republicans 25 House seats in November. When the all-Clinton-all-the-time approach actually produced a GOP net loss of 5, Gingrich had the joy of resigning.
As surprising as it may seem, Nancy Pelosi may soon get that same one-way ticket home.
Just weeks ago, all talk was of the imminent Democrat takeover of Congress. In mid-July, the USA Today/Gallop poll found a Democrat lead of 16 points in its generic congressional ballot test. Pelosi and pals were giddy with thinly-veiled (and occasionally crystal clear) talk of impeachment hearings, and Ned Lamont’s victory over the Senate’s sole remaining pro-defense Democrat, Joe Lieberman, fueled glee from Haight-Ashbury to Greenwich Village.
But something happened on the way to the inauguration.
This week’s USA Today/Gallop poll tells a very different story. George W. Bush, recently suffering approval ratings as low as 31 percent, has surged back to 44, doing immense harm to Democrats’ “make every race about Bush” strategy. Much of that groundswell comes from returning Republicans, earlier angry about, among other things, border security. Only 70 percent of Republicans approved of the President shortly after the May Day illegal immigrant rallies; 86 percent approve today.
But most devastating to the Dems, the generic congressional ballot, now tied: Republicans 48, Democrats 48.
This is a bigger number than it seems, for three reasons. First, as famed political handicapper Charlie Cook reminds us, the generic ballot tends to contain a bias toward Democrats of about five points. Second, it indicates that the Democrats’ strategy has backfired horribly, and there’s no reason to believe Republicans’ surge is complete.
But third, the 48-48 number does not and cannot adequately factor in voter turnout. And here, you’d be foolish to bet against the right.
Part of this is due to mechanics. Republicans have developed a truly awesome turn-out machine, centered around the RNC’s Voter Vault technology and rooted in a twenty year crusade by Virginia National Committeeman Morton Blackwell (and his lesser acolytes like yours truly) to convince the party to focus on the shoe leather-intensive work of getting out the base.
This was the margin of victory in 2004. It could be this year too, if Florida is any indication. In the September 5th Florida primary, with heavily-contested races in both parties, the Dems managed to turn out just 87 percent as many voters as the GOP, in a state with significantly more registered Democrats than Republicans. This mirrors results in 2004 Ohio, where Democrats exceeded their vote goals in every single precinct in the state and still lost.
But before the left starts whining about “unfair” grassroots activism and attempting to ban precinct walks, it better look again at those numbers. Likely voters trust Republicans over Democrats to fight terrorism by a margin of 45-28, they are evenly divided on Iraq for the first time in a year, and they support the President on wiretapping of foreign terror suspects 55-42.
The poll also ignores a key motivation for the Republicans’ most important voter base, Evangelicals and conservative Catholics and Jews. The latter group is growing, in no small part because Democrats have begun openly siding with Hamas against Israel and even engaging in anti-Semitic slurs at home (e.g. MoveOn’s attacks against “Jew Lieberman”).
But Evangelicals and Catholics have a lot on the line too. Marriage protection amendments are on the ballot in eight states — not one such initiative has lost to date — as well as an outright abortion ban in South Dakota. And forward-thinking Christians have to know that one more Bush Supreme Court nominee could be all it takes to overturn Roe v. Wade itself. That will not happen — perhaps for another generation — if Democrats win.
Republicans can still fumble this. They did a lot of fumbling to get where they were this July. But with the MoveOn.org crowd openly poo-hooing the very existence of a terrorist threat — a threat which would have plunged several airliners into the Atlantic recently but for George Bush’s much-attacked anti-terror programs — it’s hard for Americans to have much confidence in the party of Hillary and Ned. And should Senate Republicans succeed in passing the House’s strong border security law — they began debate today — the main issue dividing the party will be well on its way to resolution.
It’s about time. Congressional Republicans, should they win, better learn their lesson from this near-death experience. Their constituency is conservative first, Republican second.
And that just isn’t going to change.