The Elephant in the Room

(By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

No modern political party has weathered a midterm election with a president as low in the polls as George W. Bush.

It is a reality of midterm elections that the party holding the White House often suffers big losses even if the president is popular. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's approval rating was at 57 percent in 1958, but Republicans still lost 48 seats in the House.

The best any party has done when its president has dipped below 50 percent was in 1978. That fall, President Jimmy Carter's approval rating was 49 percent and the Democrats lost 15 House seats -- exactly the number Democrats need this year to win back the chamber.

The latest round of polls shows no particular improvement for the president, despite recent news that British law enforcement had broken up a plot to blow up airplanes bound for America. Polls taken immediately after reports of the alleged terror plot still showed his approval below 40 percent.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Aug. 7, just before the alleged plot was unveiled, showed Bush with an approval rating of 40 percent. That was up from a low of 33 percent in May and 38 percent in late June. The poll found that 58 percent said they disapproved of the way he has handled his job, with 46 percent saying they strongly disapproved.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters Bush's approval ratings might be higher if the public knew more about the steps he is taking to prevent new attacks, but said release of such information could compromise anti-terror operations. "Unfortunately, at the expensive of the approval ratings would be our national security," he told reporters.

Bush's numbers were far higher at earlier points in his presidency, however, even though the administration was no more forthcoming about its anti-terror activities than it is now.

Early August polls leave the president and his party on the wrong side of history heading into November.

If there is a glimmer of hope for the Republicans, it is that Bush has beaten the odds before. In 2002, his party gained seats in the House and Senate, the first time any president had accomplished that in a midterm since 1934. But his approval rating then exceeded 60 percent.

For all practical purposes, Bush's approval rating is a matter of concern for every GOP candidate, which is why the White House is working to boost the president's popularity. Some races will be competitive in almost any situation, but if the president starts to dip even lower, he can put at risk Republicans who otherwise would not expect a difficult race.

Among the races worth watching are Rhode Island's Senate race: Lincoln D. Chafee (R) is facing a tough primary and, if he wins, an even tougher general election in a state in which Bush's approval rating is in the bottom five in the nation.

In Ohio's 15th District, Rep. Deborah Pryce, a member of the House GOP leadership, is trying to make her race about anything but the president. In Florida's 22nd District, Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R), who has faced tough races before, can thank Bush at least in part for what may be his most difficult reelection fight. And in Indiana's 2nd District, Rep. Chris Chocola (R) has a battle on his hands.

-- Dan Balz

© 2006 The Washington Post Company