Monday, October 23, 2006

Is the GOP position in collapse, freefall, meltdown? For such is the impression you could get. For example, in Virginia, a reliably Republican state in presidential voting, a once-popular incumbent senator, once expected to be a credible candidate for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination following his easy re-election this year, is in trouble, or such is the impression you could get. A major newspaper (not this one) has gotten into the habit of referring to the race as a “virtual tie.” If the Virginia seat goes Democratic, it’s hard to see how Republicans won’t be losing their Senate majority.

Similarly, there’s New Mexico’s tough 1st Congressional District, where Heather Wilson has been a tenacious Republican incumbent who has had to beat back serious challengers every two years since winning the seat in a special election in 1998. Mrs. Wilson, who commutes to Washington for congressional sessions, is famous for knowing her district and staying closely in touch with her Albuquerque-and-suburbs constituency, in which John Kerry beat George Bush 51-48. Yet recent polls show her trailing her Democratic challenger, Patricia Madrid.

If the GOP were firmly in control of the Wilson seat, chances are pretty good that the losses Republicans would suffer in the toughest electoral environment since they won control in 1994 would nevertheless be insufficient to threaten their House majority. But the Wilson seat looks to be slipping away.

Democrats doing surprisingly well in traditionally GOP territory; no reverse instances of Republicans doing well in traditionally Democratic territory: If you multiply each of these stories by the number of similar narrative lines describing other Senate and House races, the impression you could get is that the floor is indeed falling out from under the Republican Party.

But, as the adage says, “for instance” isn’t proof. Take that “virtual tie” in Virginia, for example. That’s one way of looking at the polling there. Another way to look at it is that George Allen has led in every poll taken, albeit narrowly. Now, if his challenger, James Webb, were running narrowly ahead in every poll taken, albeit within the margin of error, do you think any major papers (including this one) would be giving Mr. Allen the benefit of the doubt by calling the race a “virtual tie”? I don’t.

The Wilson-Madrid matchup, meanwhile, is indeed highly illustrative of the problem the Republican Party has, but I think what it really shows and the impression you might get from the coverage of the race are two very different things. If you look at the recent polling, what you see is a narrow but consistent Wilson lead through about Oct. 1, with the polling since then showing a consistent Madrid lead.

Of course, that coincides quite precisely with the explosion of the Mark Foley scandal and the questions it raised about GOP congressional leadership. Nationwide, you can see a similar effect. It turns up in the “generic ballot” test as well as in polling in individual House races. And whatever you think about the quality of polling, i.e, whether pollsters are doing a good job of separating the people who will actually be turning up at the polls in November from registered voters in general, the movement over time of the numbers reported within a given firm’s polling does matter, and it was all in one direction across numerous firms in early October. All those lean-Republican seats that got reclassified by expert analysts as toss-ups, and all those firmly Republican seats that got reclassified as “lean,” reflect what happened in this period.

The conclusion anyone would reasonably draw from that sudden deflation was that the Republican House majority is in deep trouble, and I have no problem concluding that if the election were held on Tuesday, Oct. 10, the result would have been a sweeping Democratic victory.

But the impression you could get from the coverage of the campaign is that the GOP position continues to erode. You would get this impression, I think, because the early October GOP decline is still working itself through the news cycle. (Let’s leave the “virtual tie” cheerleading element aside for the moment.) We are still reading fresh accounts of effects that had their origins three weeks or so ago. And I, for one, find very little in the way of evidence of further and ongoing GOP erosion. In other words, I think we are still reading and hearing about the results of that landslide election that didn’t take place Oct. 10.

In short, the GOP position, especially in the House, has suffered a national, secular collapse, but it is no longer collapsing, and it’s a mistake to take that impression away from the ongoing coverage of the collapse that occurred.

The question now is whether the local forces at play in House races, such as the force of personality of incumbents who were once popular enough with their constituents to get elected in the first place and the piles of cash they have on hand for the final weeks, begin a retail reversal of Republican fortune.

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