So here's the meta-narrative: despite a win streak for the Republicans based on a narrow 2000 win, and victories in 2002 and 2004 based on a repetitive, simple and coherent message of national security, 2006 is shaping up to be something different.
The NSA situation is classic: pound the Dems for being weak while the Dems struggle to get the message out that Bush is breaking the law to spy on Americans. Depend on the fair and balanced media to repeat the R message while blurring the D message. Get pseudo-news services and other bogus forums expensively paid by crooked or out-of-sight and under-the-table fund raising (Blame Hillary! Blame Dean! Blame the ACLU!). Pay pundits to slant the message.
Effective, certainly. But not as effective as it used to be. The latest Gallup says:
the Democratic Party made gains in party identification among the American public. The year marked new lows in President George W. Bush's job approval ratings amid difficulties in Iraq, high gas prices, and criticisms of the government response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Democrats made gains in party identification on the national level and more U.S. states had Democratic leanings in 2005 than any time in the last four years.
Gallup conducted more than 42,000 interviews in its multi-day polls in 2005, and asked each American who was interviewed whether he or she identified as a Republican, independent, or Democrat. If respondents identified as independents, Gallup asked whether they leaned more toward the Democratic or the Republican Party. The large number of interviews allows for an analysis of partisanship at the state level, which Gallup has done in each of the last four years.
Overall, in 2005, basic party identification was even -- 33% of Americans each identified as Republicans, independents, and Democrats. When independents' leanings are taken into account, the Democrats gain an advantage -- 48% of Americans either identified as Democrats or leaned to the Democratic Party, while 43% identified as Republicans or leaned to the Republican Party. That represents the largest Democratic advantage since 2000. Democrats have typically held an edge in partisanship in modern U.S. political history, so the recent changes can be thought of as a return to the past.
Party ID is a floating variable. When one party 'looks better', such as after 9/11, weakly committed will self-identify, especially true of independents. Changes in self-identified party ID within a given poll are as likely to reflect changes in the electorate as sampling bias of one sort or another. (See Mystery Pollster's series on this for more about weighting by party ID).
But what's happening here is that Bush is continuing to lose independents. He has not made a political comeback, despite the bloviating from the house media. This summary clearly shows Bush mired in the low 40's pre-SOTU, and a short-lived bump means nothing at all. When you include Rasmussen at 45%, ARG at 36% and Harris at 43%, and the newest Diageo Hotline at 44% (down from 50 a few weeks ago), the idea that Bush has somehow put his troubles behind him is just silly talk.
Nevertheless, Republican sentiment about the upcoming 2006 and 2008 elections hovers somewhere between resignation and panic. "We are in danger of losing both the House and Senate next year," says a former aide to Dick Cheney. "That's the truth of it. Santorum is probably out, Talent [R- Missouri], [Conrad] Burns and Lincoln Chafee are endangered and we could lose everything in Ohio if we don't shape up."
I can't begin to speculate about 2008, but I don't see the same old tactics working for the Rs in 2006, though they'll keep running the same plays until they lose. And 2006 may be the year the playbook fails them.