American voters will again go to the polls in November. While this is not a presidential election year, one third of the Senate, all of the House of Representatives, and several key governorships will be on the line. The results of the election will help shape policy for the remainder of the Bush presidency and the tone of the 2008 presidential elections.
Where things stand today, Republicans enter this election with Mr. Bush as a wounded president. His polling numbers continue at their lowest point (38%). While he has almost no support among Democrats (10%) and very poor numbers among Independents (27%), he has also lost ground among his own base. He is currently polling under 45% among veterans, married voters, NASCAR fans, gun owners, and Catholics. These were all groups that put him over 50% in 2004. His polling numbers among Republicans hit just 69% (he had 91% support in 2004) and he is getting only 51% support among self-identified evangelical Christians (he won in 2004 with over 70%). Perhaps even more ominous for him and his fellow Republicans is that only 43% of the self-identified "investor class" -- a group he has wooed with his concept of an "ownership society" -- give him a positive rating, while 57% give him a negative rating, including 41% who say "poor."
The top issues do not play well in either the Republicans or the President's favor. The war in Iraq is now supported by only a majority of Republicans, and by very few Democrats or Independents. While the major U.S. economic indicators are good, American voters still are in a state of anxiety over losing health benefits, pensions, and the values of their 401k retirement plans. Even though stock market prices are high and rising, voters tell us that they are still nursing bad memories from when the financial rug was last pulled out from under their 401ks and they are worried it can happen again, perhaps soon.
Voters are also deeply concerned about the lack of universal health insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid (on the local level). One of Mr. Bush's signature achievements during his first term, an education bill which was labeled "No Child Left Behind," is hugely unpopular because it is a mix of unfunded mandates for local school districts and has little success in making any difference in actual student achievement.
Perhaps the most ominous issue for Republicans is the status of illegal immigrants. Many Americans, on one hand, appear to be in one of those historical xenophobic moments, ready to shut the door and build a fence along the border with Mexico. Other Americans recognize that illegal immigrants work hard at jobs many natives refuse to take and play a vital role in our economy.
Back in the late 1990s, I did a series of polls and focus groups among America's Hispanic voters. They told me then that while they agreed with Republicans on many conservative social issues like abortion and the traditional family, they could not vote for the party because it was responsible for the notorious Proposition 187 in California which limited services to illegal immigrants (mostly Mexicans). Since that time, Republicans have made serious inroads with Hispanics -- Michael Bloomberg in New York City, George Pataki in New York State, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California all scored well with Hispanic voters. And Mr. Bush, himself, received anywhere from 37% to 40% of the huge Hispanic vote in 2004. While Hispanics were only 6% of the 105 million voters in 2000, they were over 8% of nearly 120 million voters in 2004. And the size of their vote will only continue to grow nationally, particularly in key states.
The Republicans are clearly in a bind on this issue and in the public eye. This could be a bad year for them. But while the Democrats are shown to be doing better in the polls today, the Democratic Party also enters the election with some serious problems. First, they are tongue-tied on the most intense issue of the year, the war in Iraq. They have been unable to raise the opposition to the war that their base wants because they so strongly supported Mr. Bush in the first place. Absent the money saved by bringing troops home that could then be used for programs like Medicare and education, the Democrats are in checkmate on these issues because there is no other place to get money for these programs -- unless the Bush tax cuts are rolled back. Democrats fear rolling back tax cuts in an election year, and the alternative -- coming up with their own package of tax cuts -- still means no money for spending programs.
While Democrats, as the minority party in Congress, have been able to play defense by blocking some of Mr. Bush's initiatives like Social Security reform, they have no program except to tweak the decrepit program already in existence. And while the Democrats were able to block the plan to turn over management of several major ports to a Dubai-owned company, this by no means confers credibility on them in the fight against terrorism. President Bush's support for fighting the war on terrorism is now at only 42%, down from 64% when he won in 2004. Still, the Democrats remain outgunned on this issue.
Finally, the personalities. Mr. Bush may not have much political capital, but he has been a resilient political figure who has risen from the ashes before. The Democrats have no political personality to match him. While former President and Senator Clinton certainly excite the base of Democratic voters, their involvement triggers an equal and opposite excitement in the Republican base to oppose them.
The good news for Democrats is that, if the election were held today, they would win seats in both the House and Senate, as well as pick up several major governorships across the nation. But the election is not today.