Considering how bleak Republicans' down-ballot prospects look, it is re-markable that they appear to have a 50-50 shot at holding on to the presidency. What makes this situation particularly unusual is the fact that a party seeking a third consecutive term in the White House generally succeeds only 20 percent of the time.
How awful is the outlook for Republicans in nonpresidential contests? Well, a GOP pollster commented the other day that if things weren't already bad enough for Republicans, a second consecutive election disaster this close to the start of the redistricting process has consequences too horrible for his party to even imagine. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nearly 80 percent of the 7,382 state legislative seats nationwide will be on the ballot this year. And the terms of 642 of the 1,971 state Senate seats up for grabs this year will run through at least 2011, when the new state legislative and congressional lines will be drawn.
But even the presidential race, the one silver lining for the GOP in 2008, will be a real challenge. That this race is going to be close seems pretty clear. A new Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll, conducted May 29-31 among 802 registered voters, has John McCain and Barack Obama tied at 44 percent. It shows McCain pulling 89 percent of Republicans and Obama winning 75 percent of Democrats. It also has Obama edging out McCain among independents by just 4 percentage points, 43 percent to 39 percent. If those figures look strange, it's because the two major parties have gone from parity in voter identification four years ago to Democrats' having a 9-point advantage. Now, just to stay even, McCain has to perform 14 points better among Republicans than Obama has to among Democrats', given the deterioration in the number of people identifying with the GOP.
Two other just-released surveys show Obama a bit ahead: A Pew Research Center poll taken May 22-25 among 1,242 registered voters has Obama up by 3 points, 47 percent to 44 percent; a survey by Republican pollster Steve Lombardo's Lombardo Consulting Group involving 1,000 registered voters has Obama up by 4 points, 44 percent to 40 percent. Likewise, a May 13-15 survey of 1,014 likely voters taken by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg for the Democracy Corps, which he chairs with James Carville, had Obama up by 2 points. No matter how you cut it, this contest looks like it will be close.
But that's a hard case to make down the ballot. Although numerous pollsters have noted that McCain has a brand identity distinct from the Republican Party, enabling him to significantly outperform his ailing party in current surveys, other GOP candidates are having great difficulty replicating his success.
A new and different Democracy Corps poll conducted among 1,600 likely voters who live in 45 Republican-held swing congressional districts found that voters in those districts viewed the Democratic Party more favorably than the Republican Party. The Democrats rated 48.3 on a scale with a top score of 100, while the GOP rated 41.6. On that same favorability scale, Obama did slightly better than McCain, 47.7 percent to 47.0 percent. Neither of these outcomes would hold in a poll of all Republican-held House districts, but the GOP is really hurting in the ones now viewed as in play. In a generic congressional ballot test in those 45 GOP-held swing districts, Democrats ran 9 points ahead, 51 percent to 42 percent, a horrific result for the GOP because it suggests that a Republican candidate could win 100 percent of the undecided vote and still lose by 2 points. When voters were asked about their presidential preference, Obama and McCain ran neck-and-neck--47 percent each--in those districts.
When that survey asked the general election question using the names of the most likely Republican and Democratic congressional nominees in place of the generic party, Democrats still led, 50 percent to 43 percent. It was an astonishing outcome, given that every one of these districts is represented by a Republican.
Clearly, Republican candidates need to find a way to boost their performances. They should move closer to McCain, who significantly outperforms his party in current polling. Obama, meanwhile, underperforms his party, but the Democratic brand helps him a lot, which is certainly a switch from earlier election cycles.
This article appears in the June 7, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.