Respected non-partisan political analysts like Charlie Cook are declaring, "Democrats could lose the House if the election were held today with exactly the circumstances that exist today." And University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato hosts a website "Sabato's Crystal Ball" that ballyhoos its current projections: GOP pickups of precisely 32 House seats and 7 Senate seats. (Republicans need to win 39 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate to control either chamber).
Our all-talk-little-thought media culture has scant patience for actual events like elections -- by the time flesh-and-blood voters go to the polls on Nov. 2, everyone's attention will already be fixated on the 2012 presidential primaries. While the more cautious analysts footnote their predictions with the caveat "if the elections were held today," such hedge phrases are sloughed off like the motor-mouthed recital of possible side effects at the end of a drug commercial.
In truth, the congressional elections are still far enough in the future for the political landscape to be reshaped by the powerful bulldozer of unknowable events. One hundred days was long enough for Napoleon to escape Elba, assemble an army, reclaim his title as emperor of France and endure his final defeat at Waterloo. One hundred days was long enough for the newly elected Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Depression to create the New Deal. But in an era when information flows at a speed that makes Mercury seem flatfooted, we are treating the 2010 elections as if voters will be locked in a news-free isolation chamber until November.
Without conjuring up the chilling notion of another terrorist attack (the X-factor mentioned in all election forecasts since 2002) or a dramatic image makeover (Harry Reid rescuing a drowning kitten with TV cameras rolling), we still can be certain that aspects of the summer of 2010 will seem as dated as a Jane Fonda workout video by Election Day. Here are Five Known Unknowns (hat tip to Don Rumsfeld) that could play havoc with 2010 electoral predictions:
Changed Perceptions of the Economy
Nothing will make this a "morning in America" election for Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. (Next shocking revelation: Earth orbits sun). But it is easy to under-estimate how quickly public attitudes about the direction of the economy can shift.
Just about 100 days ago, in early April, a routine financial news story in The New York Times was headlined, "Why So Glum? Numbers Point to a Recovery." Another Times story captured the prevailing April optimism with this sentence: "The mood has gone from panicked to cautious, and now, as Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody'sEconomy.com put it, some consumers are 'almost a bit giddy.'" In late April, a CBS News/New York Times national poll even found that voters narrowly gave Obama a favorable rating for his handling of the economy.
In contrast, Obama's approval rating on the economy plunged to 40 percent in a recent CBS News poll. These days, the nation's water supply would have to be dosed with Prozac to produce a hint of giddy optimism among consumers or to lure Democrats, who gave up being giddy months ago, off their window ledges. But, despite downcast economic projections, the dominant theme in late October could be renewed recovery or double-dip recession. We will not know for sure until we see the final pre-election unemployment numbers, the Halloween weekend Dow Jones average and the fall global economic outlook in the wake of the Greek debt crisis.
The Immigration Wild Card
July 27 could turn out to be among the most important dates on this year's political calendar -- that is when the Arizona are-your-papers-in-order immigration law is slated to take effect. One hundred days ago, when it was still uncertain that Gov. Jan Brewer would sign the get-tough legislation, few imagined that this Arizona law would become a Rorschach test for national attitudes on immigration.
If the law is harshly enforced with TV news footage and YouTube videos highlighting examples of ethnic profiling and harassment of legal residents, the resulting furor could galvanize the Latino vote and increase Democratic turnout above expected levels in November. Conversely, the federal courts could halt enforcement of the law awaiting a judicial review likely to go all the way to the Supreme Court. In that case, Republican base voters joined by anti-immigration independents could have a new reason to revile the Obama administration and rally against perceived judicial activism.
Will the Oil Spill Remain a Gusher of an Issue?
BP's fouling of the Gulf of Mexico has been the second biggest news story of the year (topped only by the sputtering economy), according to content analysis by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. But if the oil spill has indeed been permanently capped (nothing is certain when it comes to BP these days), will that mean that Obama's slow initial response to the environmental catastrophe will fade as both a news story and a voting issue?
This is the kind of question that defies pollsters since voters themselves have no idea how they will feel in November. Factor in the uncertainties of the hurricane season plus the unknown pace of cleanup efforts -- and you have a tar ball of a political puzzle.
Do the Republicans Need a Message – and Will They Have One?
Most memories of the 1994 GOP landslide that brought Newt Gingrich to power overstress the importance of "The Contract With America" that nearly 200 Republican incumbents and candidates signed on the steps of the Capitol six weeks before the election. But the struggle dividing congressional Republicans and their consultants this year is between those who believe that merely shouting, "Obama! Pelosi! Liberal!" is enough and those who demand an affirmative program. As Gingrich himself told The Washington Post, "Consultants, in my opinion, are stupid. The least idea-oriented, most mindless campaign of simplistic slogans is a mindless idea."
Even if the Republicans can agree on a positive political vision for November (an iffy proposition), it will need to be a compelling message that can be communicated to the voters against the cacophony of 30-second attack ads and oppo-research vitriol. Gingrich was always a masterful showman and "The Contract With America" was built around internal House reforms that could be enacted despite the bitter opposition of a Democratic president in the White House.
Most state polls, such as Rasmussen Reports, use a likely voter model to estimate who will actually go to the polls in November. But without plunging into the depths of bitter debates over polling methodology, it is an obvious truth that pollsters can more accurately gauge likely voters on the eve of the election than they can in mid-July. With statewide political reporters an endangered species because of newspaper cutbacks, these horse-race polls provide much of the grist for political debate in Washington and on television. The potential problem for armchair political analysts is that these July polls may provide a distorted picture of the 2010 electorate, especially if turnout patterns do not follow traditional norms.<br />
There are other political uncertainties out there from the Tea Party's prospects in the remaining Senate primaries in states like Colorado to whether the Citizens United Supreme Court decision will lead to an October outpouring of corporate-sponsored political TV ads, which would be legal for the first time. The real-world world could further complicate political handicapping with everything from a foreign-policy crisis to an unexpected Obama administration scandal.
One hundred days is a lifetime in politics -- as Napoleon would be the first to attest. So follow the confident prognostications of TV pundits if that is your game. But just remember that no soothsayer has ever offered a money-back guarantee.
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