WASHINGTON — In a typical election year, it would be too soon to make predictions about which party will win control of Congress. Voters don't really begin tuning in until after Labor Day, the thinking goes. But this November's vote is shaping up to be no ordinary election. A climate favoring change away from Republican control is already clearly in place.
The biggest worry point for Republicans is the intensity factor: How interested are the voters and how likely are they to turn out for the election? In that category, polls show Democrats enjoying a significant advantage.
"The question to me is much less, 'Hey, are Democrats going to take control of Congress?' as much as it is, 'Hey, can the Republicans do anything to stop it?' " says Amy Walter, House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
The Democrats need a net gain of only 15 seats to take over the 435-seat House, where the balance is currently 231 Republicans to 201 Democrats, with one independent and two vacancies. With only about 50 competitive House races, both parties' campaign committees are concentrating their resources in a targeted fashion. For once, the Democrats are competitive with the Republicans in fundraising this cycle, but the organization of Democrats' turnout operations remains a point of fierce contention in party circles. It remains unclear whether the Democrats can build an infrastructure to match the Republicans' time-tested turnout program.
In the end, Democratic intensity may trump Republican organization on Nov. 7. But in a year that many Democrats consider the party's best chance to retake the House since it lost control in the political tsunami of 1994, voter turnout remains a critical question.
"There's a big anti-Republican wave building," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster working for several House candidates. "But that wave will crash up against a very stable political structure, and nobody will know till Wednesday morning [the day after the election] which is more important – the size of the wave or the stability of the structure."
One element that affects "the stability of the structure" is open seats, which are typically more vulnerable to takeover by the opposition party than are seats held by incumbents. This cycle, the Republicans are protecting only eight open seats among the 36 deemed competitive by the Cook report, and the Democrats are protecting only two out of the 10 on Cook's list.
Another type of race to watch is the so-called "mismatched seats" – those that are, for example, occupied by a Republican in a district that has recently voted for a Democrat. "We have fewer of these than ever," says Mr. Mellman.
Aside from the national sentiment, which shows an electorate largely unhappy with the direction of the nation and President Bush and Congress chronically unpopular, state and local issues could create waves that work against incumbents. In Pennsylvania, where four Republican House members are in danger, the climate against the GOP is negative, fueled by the actions of the state legislature – which cost some top Republican members their jobs in the party primary in May.
Ohio and, to a lesser degree, Indiana also present Republican House incumbents with local "climate" problems. Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio is already in major political trouble amid a federal investigation into his ties with imprisoned former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But two other Ohio Republicans – Steve Chabot and Deborah Pryce – are also at risk of losing their seats, per the Cook list.
Still, while a path to Democratic control of the House is chartable on paper, the Democrats "have to go out there and win those seats with real live people," says Ms. Budde. "I think the greater uncertainty in an election like 2006, unlike 1994, is that the message is so much less controllable.... Now there are so many more avenues of communication, and the communication models are very inexpensive."
"It's conceivable that anything could happen," she concludes.
For the three vulnerable GOP House members in Connecticut – who could fall victim to Budde's "clumping" phenomenon – the Democratic Senate primary that threatens the political life of Joe Lieberman is highly relevant. Senator Lieberman's support for the Iraq war may become his undoing, and with voters in solid blue Connecticut riled up over the issue, the Republican House members could fall victim to that momentum and intensity of feeling.
Perhaps the most telling generic poll to is one sponsored by National Public Radio, and conducted jointly by Democratic (Stan Greenberg) and Republican pollsters (Glen Bolger). In surveys of only the 50 most competitive districts in the country, as determined by the Cook list and some others, the poll found a startling shift from two years ago. In 2004, the total vote in those districts went Republican by some 12 points. In late July 2006, Democrats came out ahead by about six points.