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
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.
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
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
"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.
McCain must overcome a "generic" presidential preference for a
Democratic president of 51 percent to 33 percent (in the WSJ/NBC poll).
He'll have to appeal more strongly than Obama to independents, moderates, and
soft Democrats. The good news for McCain is that 20 percent of Clinton supporters in primary exit polls and
other surveys say they'll vote for him over Obama.
In the House, Republicans want to stay within close range of Democrats, who
currently have a 36-seat majority. Republicans hold 199 seats. The generic
advantage for a Democratic House is 49 percent to 34 percent (again in the WSJ/NBC
poll), which shows the headwind Republicans are running against. If the next
president is a Democrat, Republicans figure they'll have a chance to win
control of the House in 2010, so long as losses this year don't put them too
Republicans need a minimum of 45 senators to pursue a filibuster strategy
and block or alter Democratic legislation. They currently hold 49 Senate seats,
but at least 7 of those are in jeopardy this year. Only 41 votes are required
for a successful filibuster, but a few Republicans always defect--thus the need
If the Conservative triumph in Britain last month has any relevance for America,
Republicans shouldn't get their hopes up in 2008. It took Conservatives 11
years to recover from their landslide loss to Labour in 1997. The Republican
recovery--what there is of one--is less than two years old.