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Opinion: Doug Thompson

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Why Congress’ bad numbers don’t matter

Congress has worse poll numbers than the president. The Democrats are in the majority in Congress. That shows some hope for Republicans in the next round of elections, right?
Well, no, actually. It’s more bad news for the GOP.


I haven’t lived through many changes of control in either house of Congress. I’ve seen a few, though, enough to generalize a bit.
People hate Congress but love their particular congressman, as a rule. If only all those bums were like our bum. So they have to be extremely mad at Congress as an institution to throw out their own congressman. It can happen, but the congressman in question usually has to foul up severely, too.
I remember when Tom Foley of Washington state was Speaker of the House. Voters were enraged in 1994 by his successful federal lawsuit to overturn a state term limits law. He filed the suit because somebody had to and he thought he’d be safe. No sitting speaker had failed to get re-elected since 1860. Well, there’s one now.
Generally, people who aren’t card-carrying party members are pro-incumbent or anti-incumbent. Republicans are Republicans and Democrats are Democrats every year. The only big movement involving partisans is in voter turnout. All of the rest of us don’t care about labels so much as performance. If we’re so mad we’re really ready to throw the rascals out, we’ll vote against our incumbent – whatever party he belongs to.
That’s a vast oversimplification, but the root principle is good.
There are 22 Republican Senate seats up for election next year. Only 12 Democratic seats are coming up for an election. If the voters throw the rascals out in the Senate, there just happen to be more GOP rascals than otherwise.
The situation in the House of Representatives is more complicated. There are not many news outlets that do a good job of covering Congress, to be frank. Oh, you can find plenty of news on almost any particular race. However, there is very little systematic news coverage of Congressional elections because good news coverage would require covering 435 House races in every election. Just imagine what the polling would cost. Even if you cut back by disregarding safe seats, you’d still have more than 100 races to cover.
This difficulty of coverage is one reason the Republican Revolution of 1994 blindsided the mainstream media, and why Democratic gains in the Senate were greater than anticipated in 2006.
Therefore, to get a grip on what’s going on in the House, you really have to look state by state and race by race. For instance, the GOP meltdown in Ohio doesn’t get many headlines around here, but a major federal trial there started just last week. Scandals there have led to convictions of 18 prominent Republicans and the first election of a Democratic governor in 16 years. The convictions include a former governor and members of his staff.
This will have a major impact on Congressional politics in Ohio, a formerly solid Republican state.
My best stab at a generalization in the House is this: There may be more Democrats running for re-election than Republicans, but people had their chance to vent their anti-incumbent rage last year. It won’t be as big a factor in 2008.
Then there’s the matter of turnout. Next year is a presidential election year. GOP turnout prospects appear glum. Neither Rudy Giuliani nor Mitt Romney enjoys enthusiasm from the core GOP voters. Democratic voters are very highly motivated by comparison. Some – mainly desperate Barack Obama supporters – would argue that Sen. Hillary Clinton doesn’t light too many fires either, but they’re wrong.
Democrats still wonder if Hillary Clinton can win a national campaign. They point to her extremely high negatives in polls. Their great fear is the Democrats will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory again.
They are so worried about this, in fact – that they will go to the polls in large numbers out of simple fear.
There is no chance – none, zero, zip – that Democrats will take the race of 2008 for granted and fail to show up.

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