The Magazine

Gloomy Republicans

For good reason?

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By FRED BARNES
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First, the good news. Conservatives won a sweeping victory in an enormously important election the week before last. Unfortunately, it happened in England, where Boris Johnson won the race for mayor of London and Conservatives trounced Labour all across the country. Now, the bad news. Prospects for Republicans in the 2008 election here at home look grim. The political environment isn't as bad as it was in 2006 when Republicans lost both houses of Congress and a lot more. But it's close.

The empirical evidence is well known. More than 80 percent of Americans believe the nation is heading in the wrong direction. Democrats have steadily maintained the 10 percentage point lead in voter preference they gained two years ago. And President Bush's job performance rating is stuck in the low 30s, a level of unpopularity that weakens the Republican case for holding the White House in 2008.

There's another piece of polling data that is both intriguing and indicative. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey last month, John McCain fared better with Republican voters (84 percent to 8 percent) than Barack Obama did with Democrats (78 percent to 12 percent). McCain was also stronger than Obama among independent voters (46 percent to 35 percent).

These are terrific numbers for McCain. But they aren't enough. In the overall match-up, McCain trailed Obama (43 percent to 46 percent). The explanation for this seeming paradox is quite simple: The Republican base has shrunk. In 2008, there are fewer Republicans.

"It's the erosion in party affiliation that's pulling McCain down," says a Republican strategist, and it could doom his chances of winning the presidency. The strategist fears Republican leaders and McCain campaign officials "don't realize the trouble they're going to be in."

There have been some improvements in political atmospherics for Republicans. The 2006 midterm election was framed by intense voter dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. The 2008 election won't be. The surge of American troops in Iraq hasn't turned the war into a Republican asset, but it's at least blunted it as an effective Democratic talking point.

With scandal after scandal involving House Republicans in 2006, the party became the target of voter fury. Now Democrats control Congress. "The anger against congressional Republicans isn't there," says Republican congressman Tom Davis of Virginia, who is retiring.

Davis, however, thinks Republicans have made little headway in improving their tarnished image. House minority leader John Boehner talks about fixing the Republican "brand." Davis's assessment: "We haven't done anything the last year and a half to re-do the brand." Instead, Republicans have focused on "looking out for the president."

Pollster Frank Luntz, a sharp critic of Boehner's leadership, believes the Republican image has gotten worse. "It used to be that Republicans won [in polls] on economic and values and foreign policy issues," he says. "Democrats won on quality of life. Now Democrats are winning on everything."

The worst news for Republicans in recent weeks has been the capture by Democrats of two Republican House seats in special elections in Illinois and Louisiana. Poorly chosen candidates were responsible for the defeats, Republicans insist. Maybe, but success in special elections usually foreshadows success in the next general election. This was precisely what happened in the months before the 1994 Republican landslide when Republicans won Democratic seats in special elections.

"These special elections are not indicative of what's going to happen this fall," argues House Republican whip Roy Blunt. "I'm not saying they're helpful." He notes that John McCain and Barack Obama weren't the likely presidential nominees six months ago, so the political environment may change in the six months before Election Day. If it does, it's not likely to change much.

Democrats regard the unexpected victories in Republican territory as one more indication of a coming landslide. "There's never been a better climate, since 1932, for Democrats," says Bob Beckel, a Democratic consultant. "And the political environment usually prevails. It's impossible for me to conclude anything other than it's going to be a Democratic year."

Beckel cites, in particular, a huge increase in Democratic voters in 2008 that has widened the party's advantage in registration by millions of voters. "Republicans are facing a surge in new Democratic voters, and they are facing defections in a number of states," he says.

Indeed they are, which is why Republican expectations for 2008 are modest. There are three major goals: Hold the White House, avert sweeping House losses, and keep the Senate defeats to four or fewer.