Why The Democratic Wave Could Be A Washout

American voters have been in a bad mood lately. They don't think highly of the President's performance. They aren't crazy about the war. They certainly don't like the G.O.P.-led Congress--a New York Times poll last week put its approval rating at just 25%. And while disapproval of Congress as a whole isn't rare, polls are finding that more and more voters are dissatisfied with their own lawmakers--a more telling phenomenon. The Democrats hope that come Election Day, this perfect storm of discontent will stir a giant wave to sweep the G.O.P. out of the majority. In a recent presentation to top Democrats, pollster Cornell Belcher said the party has its best chance since the Reagan era to win slices of the electorate that have come to be identified with the G.O.P. base, including churchgoers, young white men and Southern men. Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, sees conditions ripe for an electoral tsunami but says it depends on "whether Democrats can take advantage of it."

In the past, moments like this have produced what political scientists call "wave elections," in which voters oust even lawmakers who don't seem vulnerable and political icons lose to underfunded unknowns. In 1948 there was widespread disappointment with the Republican-held "do nothing" Congress. It turned out to be an easy target for President Truman's Democrats, who retook both chambers. Such waves can sneak up. In September 1994 a Congressional Quarterly columnist, voicing the conventional wisdom of the time, wrote that the G.O.P.'s chances of taking the House were "dim." Two months later, Newt Gingrich and company capitalized on disaffection with the Democrats that peaked on Election Day and pulverized the Dems' Capitol Hill majorities.

But November is still a way off. Republicans are more chipper than they have been in months, with falling gas prices and an uptick in President Bush's approval ratings. In a Gallup poll of likely voters last week, 48% said they would vote Democratic for Congress--and 48% said they'd vote Republican. Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, says the opposition hasn't sold a vision for handling terrorism, Iraq or jobs. He also cites a drop-off in turnout for most Democratic primaries this year as one sign that the Dems aren't strong enough to mount a takeover of power on Capitol Hill. Which leaves the G.O.P. cautious but hopeful that it will be able to hang on to its majority. "The challenges aren't less, but the environment is better," says Mehlman. "If you look at the overall picture, this environment is not consistent with a surge election." In other words, the conditions aren't great, but maybe the Democrats' wave won't be quite big enough to let them surf into power.

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