Outlook: Bright Prospects for the Dems

Thomas Mann
Senior Fellow, Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution
Monday, July 17, 2006; 12:00 PM

Can the Republicans be beaten in midterm elections this November? Given the reduced competitiveness of so many congressional seats, most political onlooks say probably not. But the Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann disagrees. Bush's unpopularity and public unhappiness with the war in Iraq could stoke a tidal wave this fall that will sweep the Democrats back into the majority in the House, if not the Senate, he says in his Sunday Outlook piece, "For Democrats, A Wave Is Building," Post, (Sunday, July 16, 2006)

Thomas Mann was online Monday, July 17, at noon ET to discuss his piece and Democratic prospects for victory in November.

A transcript follows.


Arlington, Va.: Karl Rove and the White House are pushing a national support the President against the Democrats who want to cut and run campaign which strikes me as not being particularly helpful to the local Congressman who is hoping to make his way back on his own. Are many Congressional Republicans buying into this unit front? Similarly, Rove is calling Senators asking them to vote against stem cell research so Bush won't be embarrassed by a veto. Again, it doesn't strike me that Rove has the individual politicians' job security as his major emphasis.

Thomas Mann: Individual Republicans will have to distance themselves from some of the positions and strategies being pursued by Rove, when local conditions dictate that.


Washington, D.C.: Your prediction that Democrats "might" win this November fails to acknowledge that a number of "centrist" Democrats will backstab any liberal/progressive attempt to nationalize the election by highlighting Republican war deceptions and pro-corporate legislation. Second, "centrist" Democrats will never stand up to Republican efforts to suppress likely Democratic voters. Your analysis ignores the key fact that without a unified and well advertised Democratic position, no matter how disaffected the electorate becomes, it won't automatically translate into electoral change in the face of the Rovian anschluss (e.g.,the unanswered "cut and run" attack was just prologue; look at Gingrich's plea that Bush declare World War III and ask the Democrats whose side they are on).

Thomas Mann: I actually see less ideological conflict within the Democratic party this year, the well-publicized exceptions notwithstanding. The election is already nationalized by an electorate very unhappy with the war in Iraq and the economy. Democrats can and should sharpen that focus but it would be a mistake to get deeply involved in laying out policy alternatives. That's for 2008. 2006 provides an opportunity for a referendum on the performance of the governing party. Scare tactics become less effective over time.


Woodbridge, Va.: Posting early due to work -- Several precinct level studies have shown that in 1998 conservative turnout was about 6 percent lower than in 1994, largely due to total disgust with the 1997 budget surrender to Clinton's spending priorities. By 2002, conservative turnout had returned to 1994 levels and the results are history. Consequently, it seems the critical question this year will be "Are conservatives more disgusted by Republican earmarks or by Democrat posturing?" Normally, I would be predicting a repeat of 1998 (Conservatives are REALLY ticked about Republicans turning their back on fiscal responsibility) but the Democrats are taking every opportunity to trash conservative values and making the attacks personal as well as ideological, which helps increase conservative turnout. I was part of the Republican GOTV effort in Ohio and we never could have won without the efforts of ACORN, and the rest of the liberal hate groups. If they are active in swing precincts this fall, Republicans may even gain seats.

Thomas Mann: Turnout will be key. Current evidence suggests Republicans are demoralized by a number of factors: high spending, big deficits, a bloody and costly war in Iraq, high energy prices. Democrats exhibit a greater interest in this year's election. Can the Republican GOTV effort overcome that?


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Mr.. Mann: I'm delighted that you're doing this chat, and wanted to throw you an advance question.

I agree with what you say about Democrats and the House. Isn't the core of the issue the dynamics of low-turnout elections? Theoretically, they should be more volatile than higher-turnout elections (for example, those held in Presidential years) since if fewer people vote overall it takes a smaller number of highly motivated voters to affect the outcome. But, in recent years fewer and fewer of the highly motivated voters seem to be swing voters, as opposed to strong partisans. This makes House elections in particular less volatile.

As you say, a "surly electorate" may make a difference this year, by motivating more swing voters to go to the polls or (what may be more likely) depressing GOP turnout in key districts. I guess my question to you is whether you agree that the dynamics of low-turnout elections (and recently even Presidential elections have fallen into this category) are significantly different than those of high-turnout elections?

Thomas Mann: I think you have it right. Those motivated to vote have stronger partisan views and are less susceptible to appeals from the other party. This reduces the volatility of midterm and presidential elections. Nonetheless, there is still enough play in the system to generate national waves of 5 percentage points or more and they can make a big political difference.


Great Falls, Va.: How do you think the Democratic Party should handle the criticism/dissent coming from the far left "progressives," such as Markos Moulitsas and his followers? The tone and agenda of "The Daily Kos," et al, can be quite distasteful and alienating and seem to be counterproductive to efforts to cultivate a Democratic tidal wave in November. Are they truly a problem for the Dems or will this faction prove to have little influence on the Party as a whole (and should it be influential?)

Thank you.

Thomas Mann: Both parties have activists that often take and express more extreme views than rank-and-file partisans. They cause elected officials discomfort but they also energize their parties and sometimes connect earlier with the broad public than their more respectable colleagues. I don't believe the Democrats have a comparative disadvantage in this respect.


Montreal, QC: Hi, your article focuses exclusively on the House and cursorily mentions the Senate (a mistake I remember the experts making in 2000, when Democrats gained 2 House seats and 4 Senate seats).But given that state lines are not gerrymandered, what do you think of the theory that Senate races are more susceptible to national trends and more likely to break just before the election? In the last few cycles, most close Senate races have broken late in favor of one party or the other. Furthermore, in the last half-century, the House has changed parties only once (1994), while the Senate has shifted several times: in 1980, 86, 94, 2000/01, and 2002.

Thomas Mann: I agree completely with you. I have a longer paper on the elections (on that discuses your point in some detail. Senate elections in tidal wave years tend to tip in the same direction, often very late in the campaign. That is why I said a Democratic Senate majority is possible, even if not likely.


NE Washington, D.C.: Mr. Mann,

What are you hearing privately about the Democrat's support of a lot of what Mr. Bush is doing? If Kerry or Gore where in the White House taking many of the actions Bush has taken related to terrorists, internet and phone scanning, banking transaction monitoring, etc. (aside from Iraq) would they have been supportive?

Thomas Mann: The problem is less what Bush has done (outside of Iraq) than how he has done it. Had Bush worked seriously with both parties in Congress on these efforts, he could have built broader support. But his instinct is to do it entirely from the executive and let Congress and the courts be damned.


Silver Spring, Md.: From the point of view of a self-described left-leaning moderate, is it not a disturbing state of affairs in our country where the best we can say is - "Well the other guys are screwing up so badly, we outta have a chance!"? It seems to me that democrats just as guilty the republicans of letting dumb wedge issues, that do nothing but rally a small extremist base, get in the way of getting any real work done. My specific example of this is the minimum wage increase. Under any normal circumstances, there should have been plenty enough moderate republicans that the Dems could have swayed to their side to get this one passed. It is an issue that speaks to the true core of the democratic party, the working class American. Am I misinterpreting things to say that congress is so divided and worked up over silly wedge issues that when it comes to something that really should have the votes to pass, people's emotions over yesterdays dumb partisan argument outweigh common sense?

Thomas Mann: The Democrats have tried for years to increase the minimum wage but Republican control of the House floor makes it impossible for majority sentiment to prevail. If your issue is the minimum wage, then their is only one party to hold accountable.


San Jose, Calif.: Good Morning Mr. Mann. Thank you for you insightful piece yesterday.

You hinted at the high participation rates of Republican voters yesterday but I was hoping you could elaborate on it regarding this years elections. Before the 2000 election, Karl Rove believed that Bush was ahead of Gore in the popular vote by 3 million votes. However that was before the revelation of Bush's drunk driving conviction. That reportedly disenfranchised so many Republican voters that Gore actually won the popular vote as many Republican voters stayed home. Do you believe that the turmoil that the Republicans are going through at this point will disenfranchise even more voters? Is there any data on this yet? Or do you think that the weak attempts at adding a flag burning and marriage amendment to the constitution will keep Republican participation rates high at the polls this November?

Thomas Mann: Republicans are working hard to motivate their core supporters to vote in November, through symbolic votes in Congress and impressive GOTV operations. But the broader political environment is working against them. The electorate is discouraged with the state of affairs -- at home and abroad -- but Democrats are likely to be mobilized by their unhappiness with Bush and his party while Republicans might just stay home.


Dallas, Texas: For the reasons stated, is there any chance of a third party making any ground in the upcoming elections?

Thomas Mann: Not in 2006 but potentially in 2008. The latter depends on the particular appeals made by the major party presidential nominees and whether a prominent public figure see an opening and runs as an independent or third party candidate.


Missoula, Mont.: Out here in Montana, folks seem to be making a red state blue. The polls I've heard about show the Democratic challenger Jon Tester leading the Republican incumbent Conrad Burns by some seven percentage points -- and this in a state where Bush beat Kerry by about twenty percentage points. This seems to play right into your thesis that Republicans won't have an easy time of things in November.

Thomas Mann: Burns is endangered by his involvement in the Abramoff scandal. But Tester is a strong candidate, newer style Democrats have been doing well in the state, and it's a bad year to run as a Republican.


Rochester, N.Y.: How would an attack on Iran alter the political equation heading into November? Would it increase support for Republicans or make them look like warmongers? Similarly, what do you think of Newt Gingrich's idea that Republicans should start talking about World War III to attract voters?

Thomas Mann: I honestly don't know how an attack on Iran would play with the American public but I sense they would not take kindly to a leader who initiated such an attack at this time. The war on Iraq has taken a toll and Americans are less convinced that we can protect our security through largely unilateral military actions.

Newt's World War III reference is catchy but it doesn't look like a vote getter to me.


Austin, Texas: Mr. Mann -

In his recent book, "Barn Burning Barn Building," big Democratic donor Ben Barnes has a 12-step plan for Dems to get back in power. Top of this list is re-creating the "farm team" system that benefited Dems in the 60's and 70's. My question: Do you think this is legitimate, and do you see it happening?

Thomas Mann: Ben Barnes is right that parties need a constant infusion of fresh blood, especially young people willing to run for public office at the local and state level before Congress.


Atlanta, Ga.: Concerning the Abramoff scandal, is it really going to have a big effect? I get the feeling that the Justice Dept. will wait until AFTER the election to bring anymore indictments. I think that a political push should be made to get the Justice Dept. to bring indictments sooner. How do you think this is going to work out?

Thomas Mann: No telling when the DOJ will bring additional indictments. My sense is that career officials in the Office of Public Integrity are playing this straight and that the timing will not be dictated by their political superiors. The potential scandal involving the House Appropriations Committee, involving current and former members and staff, could be political dynamite.


Arlington, Va.: Yesterday, George Will's column seemed to [be] based on the belief that Rick Santorum could actually win in November and be the election that held together the Republican majority. Considering that most analysts believe that Santorum is a goner, how realistic is Will's formulation?

Thomas Mann: I think George Will's analysis was wildly unrealistic. Santorum is very much out of step with his Pennsylvania constituency and faces a formidable challenger. He is the most endangered Republican senator by far; his reelection would be a huge upset.


Rochester, N.Y.: Do you think that we'll see a big increase in the number of terror alerts, foiled "terrorist plots" as the election draws near? We sure saw a lot before the 2004 election and then hardly any in 2005. Do you think this tactic will work again in 2006?

Thomas Mann: The potency of such tactical moves tends to diminish over time.


Fairfax, Va.: What would you say to someone like me who is a nearly lifelong Republican currently living in VA who has been discouraged at times by President Bush and the Congress, as well, who could not vote for Gore and did not even consider voting for Kerry as to why I should seriously consider Democratic Senate and House candidates this year? (I voted for a Democratic Delegate candidate in the last election because he was more qualified and mature than his opponent. Senators like Reid, Kennedy and Schumer and Representatives like Pelosi and Frank come close to making me sick.)

Thomas Mann: Sounds like you will either vote for Senator George Allen and Rep. Frank Wolfe or stay home. It's not my place to tell you what to do.


Savannah, GA: With approval ratings in the toilet, and a Congress who's majority party can't even seem to come to a consensus on what needs to be done, is there really any doubt that the Democrats have a fighting chance?

My concern is that in spite of the Republican party showing an enormous amount of party weakness in the last few years, the Democrats haven't exactly shown themselves to be the picture of party solidarity either.

Thomas Mann: Actually, I've never seen the Democrats as unified in the House and Senate as I do today. Fissures in the Republican party are becoming more apparent as President Bush's political fortunes decline and his potential Republican successors begin to identify themselves as different from Bush.


Boston, Mass.: Is Rep. Jerry Lewis in any danger of losing his seat? How about Richard Pombo? Or are they still solid incumbents, despite any controversies swirling around them?

Thomas Mann: Pombo is in danger of losing his seat but probably not Lewis unless he is indicted before the election.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Much has been made about whether the Dems should advance their version of the GOP's 1994 "Contract with America" prior to November's election. What's your view? Also, how much of a factor was the Contract with America in helping the GOP pick up seats in 1994? It seems that the assault weapons ban provisions of Clinton's 1994 crime bill were a greater factor in motivating Republicans to vote that year than the flaccid proposals in their Contract with America.

Thomas Mann: The Contract with America didn't appear until five weeks before the election. Three-quarters of the voters said they never heard about it. The 1994 GOP victory was a negative referendum on Bill Clinton and the Democratic party of government, fueled by corruption in Congress, the failed health care initiative, the chaos on gun control that you refer to, and a very effective Republican campaign. Democrats should make clear their values and their critique of Bush but not get bogged down in a debate about alternative policies in a midterm election campaign. That's for 2008.


Mclean, Va.: Notwithstanding the legitimized gerrymandering of districts, do you see the possibility of a large anti-incumbent vote this fall? Something where Republicans and Democrats are not reelected because their constituents are unhappy with their past job performance. Or are we more complainers and less do-ers when it comes to enacting change?

Thomas Mann: I am convinced more incumbents will be defeated this November than in any election since 1994. (I know, that's not saying much.) I expect the Republicans to take the brunt of this anti-incumbent sentiment because they control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.


Arlington, Va.: My father thinks retaking the House and Senate would be the worst thing that could happen to the Democrats. They would have no real ability to change what's happening on the ground in Iraq, and the American public would blame them for not fixing anything, and the elephants would win the presidency. Thoughts?

Thomas Mann: He is not alone. Others counsel that the Democrats would be best falling just short of a majority in the House and Senate and using the next two years to hold Bush and the Republicans accountable for their actions. I think it is always a mistake for a party to wish to remain in the minority. Their spirits will ebb and they will have a hard time retaining their best members and recruiting new ones. Better to assume what limited power they can and conduct their affairs responsibly and constructively.


Washington, D.C.: A swing of a little over 5 percent in each district in 2004 (yielding an overall advantage of 8 percent) would have given the Democrats a majority. Polls suggest the Democrats are favored by 10 percent. Unless there is a radical redistribution of votes, if the Democrats can hold that advantage aren't they guaranteed of taking the House?

Thomas Mann: Yes, If Democrats retain their current position in the polls they will win a House majority.


Va.: The presidents who won elections were governors. The losers were Senators. In other words, management and policy is more important than politics. Do you see this still as a trend?

Thomas Mann: You're right. Governors have been much more successful than senators in winning the presidency. That pattern will be put to the test in 2008 with John McCain and Hillary Clinton as the front runners.


Washington, D.C.: I believe you or Norman mentioned that the real power and control will be the state legislatures. So who will win all mostly?

Thomas Mann: Democratic prospects in the gubernatorial and state legislative elections look bright. After the November elections, I expect Democrats to have a majority of governors and state legislators.


Bethesda, Md.: The biggest counter to your argument is that most of Bush's mistakes were apparent and manifesting bad results by November 2004, and he still won. Many partisans acknowledge Bush foreign and security policy errors, but still prefer his 'act tough' attitude, to continued perception of Dem[ocratic] weakness.

Thomas Mann: This seems to have changed since the President's failed attempt to reform social security, Katrina, higher gas prices, Dubai, etc. His job ratings and personal assessments have declined sharply and Americans are more discouraged about the war in Iraq. It will be tough to repeat the successes of 2002 and 2004.

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