While most contests in a congressional election year are decided on local issues and personalities, national themes often set the stage in a way that influences some voters' decisions.
Will this occur in 2006? And it if does, what might be the theme of a "nationalized" election?
To begin, it is important to note that the Bush presidency is at its weakest period, with job approval ratings remaining in the mid-30% range. At that level, the President has lost the confidence not only of Democrats and Independents, but of core groups of Republican voters as well. One third of Republicans and even larger percentages of born-again Christians, "NASCAR dads," suburbanites, and military veterans now disapprove of the Bush presidency.
Even "good news" (like the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) or manufactured media events (like the "surprise visit" to Baghdad) don't provide dramatic results for the White House. My brother, John Zogby, has long compared Bush's poll ratings to a bouncing ball. Over the past six years, each time the President gets a "bounce" in the polls, it is smaller than the one before. Clearly this President is running out of steam. While a sitting President can never be discounted, despite staff changes and other efforts at rehabilitation, the downward pull of domestic and international realities are working against the White House.
In all likelihood, this means that unlike 2002 when, in a two week pre-election blitz, Bush was able to create momentum swinging some close races in the Republicans' favor, he will not be playing such a decisive role in 2006. Already some Republican candidates have sought to distance themselves from the White House and many Republicans in Congress have rejected the President's position on a number of issues from the Dubai ports affair to immigration reform.
What this also means is that the notion, projected by some Democrats that the 2006 elections become a national referendum on the performance of the Bush Administration, will probably not bear fruit. Bush isn't running and Republicans may be successful in inoculating themselves against voter Bush-fatigue. Other issues will dominate the debate.
But which issues and in what form will they be debated?
Zogby polls show that the two most significant questions on voters' minds are Iraq and immigration. Neither of those two issues, however, will provide the fodder for a nationalized contest, because in neither case is there enough of a partisan divide. Republicans, while largely unified on Iraq, are deeply divided on immigration. Democrats, while largely united on immigration, are divided on the war.
This is not the case for Republican and Democratic voters. Here the partisan divide is real, but it is true for Republican and Democratic elected officials and they are the ones who must shape the debate. It would be quite different, of course, if Representative Tom Tancredo (anti-immigration campaigner from Colorado) were the undisputed leader of the Republican side, or if Representative John Murtha were the Democrat's spokesman on Iraq. But they are not.
This is not to say that in many local races, Iraq and immigration will not be the dominant themes--they will. But Republican leaders will not project the anti-immigration theme onto the national stage, because to do so would put them on a collision course with the White House. At the same time, Democrats will not seek to make the election into an "up or down" referendum on the Iraq war, because that would create an embarrassment for some leading party members like Senator Hillary Clinton who have a more ambivalent stance on the war.
Given all of this, the field is open for key Republican strategist Karl Rove to work his magic in 2006. He's already made it clear, in public statements, that he intends to focus the 2006 elections on the differences in the two parties' philosophies and on the tried and tested theme of security. However, this November will not be a replay of 2002; it will be more nuanced. The insecurity Republicans will exploit this year will be deeper and more generalized than the terrorist threat--although that will, no doubt, be there--and much of the insecurity Republicans will focus on, will have been of their own making.
Insecurity runs deep in America today. Despite macro indicators which point to a relatively strong economy, polls show that most US voters are insecure about their future. Only 29% say that the country is on the right track and many indicate concern with job loss.
Much of this is, of course, due to shattered illusions about Iraq, a general sense of vulnerability in what appears to be an increasingly hostile world environment, and constant warnings about extremism, much of which has been exacerbated by the Iraq debacle. Add to this, the rapid pace of social change, erosion of traditional values, and transformations in the US economy and it is clear why many have lost their moorings and sense of security.
Instead of addressing these challenges in a cool-headed and analytical manner, Republicans of different stripes and some Democrats have preyed off of the insecurity creating an "us" vs. "them" mindset. Whether isolationism or projection of military might, hunkering down in defense of traditional values, railing against "outsourcing" or "illegals" or just plain xenophobia--all have been tried. And will be tried again.
Whatever the response, what all have had in common has been the exploitation of insecurity. This is what was behind the reaction to the Dubai Ports World deal, the opposition to immigration reform, the cries against "dependency on foreign oil" or the erosion of constitutional freedoms in the name of national security and the attempts to sell tax cuts and the elimination of social safety net programs in the name of protecting personal freedom (i.e. "it's your money, not theirs").
This has worked in the past and so look for it to be used again in November. The message will sometimes be direct, sometimes subtle. In some states the target will be "illegals," in others it will be protecting families against gays. There will also be warnings about Democrat who "cut and run." But behind it all will be the exploitation of insecurity.
At this point, polls show Democrats holding a 10 point lead over Republicans. There are enough House seats in play for Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives in November. The same may not be true in the Senate. But to take advantage of this edge, Democrats must find a coherent and positive message that inoculates their party against those who will seek to exploit the insecurity of voters.
That will not be done by campaigning against George Bush. Nor will it be sufficient to focus solely on corruption and incompetence (although these issues will surely be in play).
If this election is to be nationalized by Democrats and not fought out exclusively on Rove's turf, Democrats will have to find an antidote to insecurity and the resolve to point the finger back at the policies responsible for this state of affairs.