Because a small, but significant, number of conservatives have become frustrated with Republican governance and independent swing voters are turning against GOP candidates, Democrats appear to be edging closer to gaining a majority of House seats.
Just four weeks before Election Day, numerous polls — all taken after the surfacing of the Capitol Hill page sex scandal involving former Republican congressman Mark Foley, but before North Korea's announcement of its first nuclear test — show Democratic candidates with huge leads over Republicans.
Going into the final 26 days of the midterm-election campaigns, the pundits and the analysts are moving more and more Republican-held congressional seats out of the "safe" column, and laying improving odds upon the Democratic Party's chances of seizing control of at least the House of Representatives.
Republican campaign officials are now saying that they expect to lose at least seven House seats, and perhaps as many as 30 in the November 7 elections. In order to achieve majority control of Congress, the Democrats must pick up 15 seats in the House, and six in the Senate.
Amazingly, and very much unlike most past elections, every Democratic incumbent is favored to win re-election and the Democrats are spending money to defend only a few seats, which means that their party's candidates are far less vulnerable to the GOP's campaign finance advantage.
An October 6-8 USA TODAY/Gallup poll showed that Democrats had a 23-point lead over Republicans on which party's House candidate would get their vote – the Democrats' greatest advantage among registered voters since 1978, and twice the lead the GOP had one month before they gained control of Congress in 1994.
However, a Democratic Party takeover of the House is not a foregone conclusion because of congressional redistricting plans that have given huge advantages to Republican incumbents. Additionally, internal Democratic polls show that the effects of the "Foley Factor" are confined to only a half-dozen races.
Less than 50 of the 435 House seats are actually competitive, and House races are usually shaped by local issues and personalities, with the closest often being decided upon which party can turn out more of its loyal voters.
The Republican Party is urging its candidates to stress local issues that could make their Democratic opponents into unpalatable alternatives; while the GOP leaders attempt to mitigate the “Foley Factor” by accusing Democrats of trying to politicize it.
In the hope of shifting the national conversation away from congressional controversies and war casualties, the White House plans to highlight national security, especially terrorism, after North Korea’s reported nuclear test.
The plummeting poll ratings appear to have befallen the GOP due to an ill-timed series of unfortunate events and revelations. It's a situation that gives Democratic candidates the opportunity to argue that the Republicans have bollixed things up, that the country needs a new direction and they are the viable alternatives.
Reports of increased violence and mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq were already adding to the American people's doubts about the progress of the war. Making matters worse was the widespread publication of leaked conclusions from a classified National Intelligence Estimate that said the Iraq war had actually increased terrorism in the region. Then, on September 28, a CNN poll revealed that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe Iraq to be in a "civil war."
That same day, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John Warner of Virginia — upon returning from his eighth trip there — said that Iraq is "simply drifting sideways," and that he believes the new government is trying, but its departments and agencies "are simply not living up or not able to meet just the fundamental responsibilities of a government."
While he urged Americans not to give up hope, Sen. Warner described a critical two to three month period ahead, and said if the Iraqi government can't perform better and reduce sectarian violence, the U.S. government ought to determine, "Is there a change of course that we should take?"
Then the news of Mr. Foley's resignation over his misadventures in cyberspace hit the airwaves on September 29, just in time to upstage — but not completely overshadow — the September 30 release of Bob Woodward's new book that, according to its Amazon.com description, "examines how the Bush administration avoided telling the truth about Iraq to the public, to Congress, and often to themselves."
According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, conducted October 5-8, almost 80% of Americans think the Republican Congressional leadership put the protection of their political standings ahead of the safety of teenage pages, and 62% believe the GOP leaders knew about Mr. Foley’s sexually explicit messages to pages long before they were made public.
Two-thirds of the respondents to the USA TODAY/Gallup poll said they were following the page scandal very or somewhat closely, and 54% believed that the GOP leadership knew about Mr. Foley's inappropriate communications with congressional pages for months or years and did not act against Mr. Foley sooner "for political reasons." Forty-three percent said that House Speaker Dennis Hastert should resign.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll revealed that 7 in 10 Americans are following the Foley scandal very or somewhat closely, but only 2 in 10 said it would be very important in deciding their votes on November 7. The poll also showed voters were evenly split over whether Speaker Hastert should step down.
The political fallout appears to be mixed, with almost two-thirds saying that the Republican leadership tried to cover up the scandal, but about the same percentage say they believe that the Democratic leaders would have done the same – and more than 3 in 5 thought the Democrats were criticizing the GOP leaders for political advantage.
Evaluating Moral Values
While the Republican Party has been scurrying, scrambling, and scuttling about in its efforts to contain the fallout from the "Foley Factor," the polls are finding that support for the GOP on its familiar winning issues, such as moral values and the war against terrorism, is deteriorating under the duress of a national and international political climate that has become increasingly hostile toward the status quo (3 in 10 registered voters in the USA TODAY/Gallup poll said their representatives don't deserve re-election).
A new group of "values voters" seems to be emerging as the American people, likely having heard their fill of news about corruption and malfeasance in government, are beginning to value honesty and responsibility over piousness and passing the buck.
Forty-seven percent of the respondents to the New York Times/CBS News poll named the Democratic Party as coming closer to sharing their moral values, and only 38% named Republicans. Surprisingly, 43% of people who live in the South, and 26% of conservatives, believed that Democrats come closer to sharing their values than the GOP.
That poll also found that 69% of Americans think members of Congress do not live by the same rules of behavior as they do, and 69% believe that members of Congress consider themselves above the law.
The USA TODAY/Gallup poll showed Democrats as having a 21-point advantage on government corruption, one of the three most important issues, along with Iraq and terrorism, according to the poll.
Iraq, Terrorism, Taxes, and The Economy
The war in Iraq continues to take its toll on President Bush and the GOP, with two-thirds of respondents to the New York Times/CBS News poll saying it is going somewhat or very badly, and only 3% saying it is going very well. Two-thirds said they disapprove of Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq, and 83% thought Mr. Bush was either hiding something or mostly lying about how the war was going.
The USA TODAY/Gallup poll showed, for the first time in Mr. Bush's presidency, that Democrats have surpassed Republicans on the issue of handling terrorism, 46% to 41%, and have a 17-point advantage on Iraq.
When asked whether the war in Iraq has been worth fighting, 63% of the respondents to the Washington Post/ABC News poll said, "No." But only one-fifth of those surveyed said they support the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and 51% agreed that Iraq is a front in the global war against terrorism.
Mr. Bush's ratings on terrorism, his signature issue, are at the lowest of his presidency, with 53% saying that they disapprove of his performance. Fifty percent believe that America is safer now than it was before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but 42% think the nation is less safe today.
The "Foley Factor" appears to have also derailed the GOP's messages regarding taxes and the economy. Republicans had sought to discredit Democrats as big spending advocates for high taxes, but 52% percent of respondents to the New York Times/CBS News poll thought that Democrats would make the right decisions on how to spend taxpayers’ money, and only 29% said Republicans would.
In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, 41% said they approve of how Mr. Bush has handled economic issues, which is about the same rating he received in August. Americans appear to be somewhat positive about the economy, likely due to the recent decline in gasoline prices, with 47% of respondents describing the economy as good or excellent, and 53% saying it is not so good or poor.
It is widely believed and hoped, among many Republicans and some Democrats, that the "Foley Factor" will soon turn into "Foley Fatigue," that the scandal will not have the legs to last four weeks, and that everybody will find something else to talk about – like the news that North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test on October 6. The U.S. Geological Survey said it had detected a 4.2 magnitude tremor in North Korea at 10:35 local time. However, thus far, there has been no independent confirmation that it was caused by a nuclear device. And now, U.S. hopes are waning for a quick United Nations vote on North Korea, which has called U.S. pressure to rein in its nuclear program tantamount to a "declaration of war."
White House spokesman Tony Snow stated the obvious very well when he said: "It's pretty clear that the Foley story has had an impact on public opinion but whether it is going to have an impact on the elections is something the voters will have to decide."
Indeed, there is no magic crystal ball that foretells a future that is four weeks away, poll numbers are well-known for their volatility, not their usefulness in forecasting close races, and the "Foley Factor" is a prime example of how the fickle finger of fate can cause fortunes to fluctuate in a flash.
How the Poll Was Conducted, October 10, 2006, New York Times.
Complete Poll Results (pdf), New York Times.
Washington Post-ABC News Poll, October 9, 2006, The Washington Post.
Poll: Nearly two-thirds of Americans say Iraq in civil war, September 28, 2006, CNN.com.
GOP Officials Brace for Loss Of Seven to 30 House Seats, Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza, October 10, 2006, The Washington Post
N. Korea Claims Nuclear Test, Anthony Faiola, Glenn Kessler and Dafna Linzer, October 9, 2006, The Washington Post.
U.S. hopes wane for quick U.N. vote on N. Korea, Evelyn Leopold, October 12, 2006, Reuters.