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A Democratic House?

In some ways, 2006 looks a lot like 1994.

12:00 AM, May 12, 2006 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IN SEPTEMBER of 1984, an ABC/Washington Post poll asked registered voters whether they preferred a Democrat or a Republican to represent their congressional districts. By a 15-point margin, respondents favored Democrats. On Election Day 1984, Democrats lost 14 seats in the House. In 1996, a similar question produced a 14-point edge for Democrats; in that election they gained 9 House seats. The lesson is that polls are important tools for understanding politics. Except when they're not.

Washington is buzzing with 2006 poll numbers, many of which are self-contradictory. For example, according to a Time magazine poll in March, 49 percent of respondents disapprove of the job Congress is doing, but 63 percent approve of their own representative. When asked which party they would like to see control Congress, respondents gave Democrats an 11-point edge, but when they were asked about the job the parties are doing in Congress, Democrats and Republicans had nearly identical ratings: 39 percent approval and about 50 percent disapproval.

But if you sift through the data, some numbers not only make sense but also look a touch familiar. Could 2006 be 1994, all over again?

Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, makes a good case that Democrats could be staring at a realigning election. Teixeira notes that in the spring of 1994, 47 percent of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track, and only 33 percent thought it was on the right track. Today those numbers are worse: 62 percent wrong track and 26 percent right track.

In generic congressional ballots in the spring of 1994, Republicans led Democrats by seven points. Today, Democrats are ahead by 16 points--with a lead among independent voters that ranges from 14 to 22 points. Before the 1994 election, a Gallup poll put Congress' job approval at 23 percent; today Gallup pegs that number at 27 percent. The Gallup people write: "In the five elections since 1974 in which Congress' job approval was below 40 percent, the average net change in seats from one party to the other was 29." To take control of the House, Democrats need a net change of only 15 seats. (If they're really on a roll, they take back the Senate by capturing six seats.)

The 1994 election was "nationalized" by Newt Gingrich, leading to increased GOP turnout and a Republican gain of 52 seats in the House. In 1994, Teixeira notes, 35 percent of those polled said that national issues trumped local concerns in their congressional vote. Today, that number stands at 44 percent.

In other words, if things keep going the way they are, Democrats shouldn't just win this November--they should win big. They've got an unpopular president, a political gift that keeps on giving (Iraq), and almost no responsibility for anything that might go wrong during the next seven months. It's a campaign message even a monkey could manage: Change!

"If the election were held today," says Republican consultant Mike Murphy, "I'd say the odds are 90 percent that we'd lose the House."

Of course, it's not all puppy dogs and ice cream for Democrats. A lot has changed since 1994. After the 2000 census, the parties conspired to gerrymander congressional districts to make them safer for incumbents. Even the most optimistic Democrats see only 40 seats in play; most observers put the number closer to 25. Michael Barone, the Bill James of American politics, points out that in years when a party makes big congressional gains, they win only about half the seats they target.

Barone, who was the first person to foresee the '94 landslide, says the ground may not be as fertile as Democrats hope. In July 1994, he noticed that several clean, competent Democratic incumbents were already running far behind unheralded Republican challengers. While some Republican incumbents are in trouble (Rick Santorum), by this hidden measure, the 2006 race does not much resemble 1994.

And then there are events. By this point in 1994, the two features we most associate with that election--Hillary Clinton's health-care collapse and the introduction of the Contract With America--had not yet appeared. The events most likely to impose themselves between now and November--immigration and the stare-down with Iran--could be more momentous.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats have figured out where the votes are on immigration. And a military engagement with Iran could cut either way, depending on its level of success, the fallout, and how Democrats position themselves.

If the election were held today, Democrats would have a good chance to realign the House of Representatives for a decade. The only problem is that the polls won't open for another 184 days. And Democrats have shown time and again that they can blow a lead like nobody's business.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard and a weekly op-ed contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer. This essay originally appeared in the May 7, 2006 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.