IF YOU'RE A REPUBLICAN and already worried about your party's prospects in 2006, pollster Frank Luntz, a Republican himself, has a message for you: It's worse than you think.
Luntz, who worked with Republicans in 1994 to draft the Contract With America and win a realigning election, said political conditions are as bad or worse now--only this time for Republicans, not Democrats. Republicans won 52 House seats in 1994 and have held the House since then. In 2006, he said, Republican control of the House--currently 232 seats to 203 seats--is "in jeopardy." Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to take over.
"Republicans have a whole year to get their act together," Luntz said, though they've shown no signs of doing so. "As angry and p-----off as we were about politics [in 1994], I think it's worse today," according to Luntz, who spoke yesterday at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "The saving grace for the Republican party is Nancy Pelosi." The House Democratic leader, he said, "is being handed the perfect political storm on a plate," but she's failing to take advantage.
Luntz said there were six components of the Republican triumph in 1994: change, economic anxiety, fear, anger, betrayal, and the prominence of national issues. All of these should be working today for Democrats, he said, and could fuel a Democratic landslide in 2006.
In focus groups, Luntz measures the desire for change by asking voters if they are "basically satisfied" or think the country is on the wrong track, causing them to prefer "a different approach." Luntz said more voters today say wrong track than he's seen "in a long time." Other Republican strategists, such as White House adviser Karl Rove, regard the right track, wrong track result in polls as politically meaningless.
Because of high economic anxiety, Luntz said, Democrat John Kerry should have won Ohio last year and captured the presidency from George W. Bush. This component has a better chance of helping Democrats in House races, he said, if only because voters may be willing to cast a protest vote against Republicans. Protest votes are uncommon in presidential races, he said. As for fear about personal and national security, it has been spurred by terrorism and the war in Iraq, Luntz said, and it, too, is now a negative factor for Republicans.
Luntz said the anger of voters is "palpable, emotional, intense." And Republican voters, the conservative ones anyway, feel betrayed by wasteful spending in Washington and Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court.
In 1994, the election was nationalized over crime, guns, healthcare, taxes, and a few other issues. Now, Luntz suggested, national issues are paramount, but that doesn't automatically mean they still will be in November 2006. Republican House members, he said, want local issues to prevail next year.
Luntz said an examination today of each of the 435 House districts doesn't indicate a Democratic breakthrough in 2006, but the same was true for Republicans in 1994. If House races are nationalized, however, that may produce "a wave" that jeopardizes all Republican incumbents less than five percentage points ahead in polls. For Democrats to gain control of the House, "you need a wave."
Voters have not been galvanized by scandals in Washington, but they are alarmed about illegal immigration, Luntz said. The president's insistence on creating a "guest worker" program to employ illegals puts him "on the wrong side of the solution." When he raises illegal immigration in focus groups of 30 people, Luntz said, "you can't shut people up."
Bush suffered from Hurricane Katrina, Luntz said, in a fundamental way. Before Katrina, the president was seen as "a great leader in terms of [handling] a great crisis. In 2004, when push came to shove, we trusted him. Katrina threw that into doubt."
The good news for Republicans goes beyond Pelosi, the mention of whose name prompts groans from focus groups. Democrats are too negative, don't have an agenda, and lack a national leader. "As pathetic as Republicans are, Democrats are worse," Luntz said.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.