Democrats head into the midterm elections facing a tidal wave of bad news and ominous portents.
In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, two-thirds believe the economy has yet to hit bottom and two-thirds of those would prefer a Republican Congress. Sixty percent said the performance of the current Congress, dominated by Democrats, was below average or one of the worst.
The Obama administration scored poorly on all the major issues - health care, the war in Afghanistan, the economy and the budget deficit.
For Democrats, the picture is similarly gloomy in other polls, which consistently show the Republicans holding a solid advantage on intensity. Real Clear Politics, which compiles an average of major surveys, said the GOP edge on the generic congressional ballot was 6.4 percent, a new high.
William Galston, who served in the Clinton White House, writes that it doesn't matter whether Republicans capture the Congress or merely win a big share of the seats. After the election, he predicted, "the days of single-party government in Washington will be over."
Republicans are positively giddy. Former Bush staffer Peter Wehner, noting the intensity gap, the Democrats' fading support among independents and President Obama's shrinking approval ratings, said November could bring "Democratic losses in the House that would more than wipe away their gains from the past two elections" - or 55 seats.
Republicans, however, may be getting ahead of themselves.
Buried in the Journal/NBC poll was this: Voters aren't just down on the Democratic Congress and the Obama administration. They're down on the political class as a whole, including Republicans. Only 24 percent of poll respondents expressed positive feelings toward the GOP, a new low in the survey's 21-year history.
Indeed, some GOP insiders say winning the 39 additional seats needed to control the House could prove tougher than the polls suggest. Unlike the Republican sweep in 1994, this year the Democrats are prepared and well funded.
Under one scenario, however, an absolute House majority may not be necessary for control. If Republicans close to within a few seats, they may convince a handful of conservative Democrats to go with the GOP, dethroning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and handing the gavel to GOP leader John Boehner.
"Taking the House is definitely within the realm of possibility," said Jeff Roe, a Kansas City political consultant who's advising 18 GOP congressional candidates from Florida to California, as well as a couple of candidates for governor. But he added that it will be tough for Republicans to grab the final five seats or so needed for a majority.
Winning the Senate is much less likely. Republicans need a pickup of 10 seats and for that they must win every swing state.
"Everything would have to go right," said University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis.
More likely: A pickup of seven or eight for the GOP.
One question is whether Republicans can seize the House by simply voicing opposition to Obama and the Democrats, without advancing a positive program of their own.
In my opinion, it's entirely possible. There's some talk Republicans may draw up something along the lines of the "Contract with America," the program released six weeks before the '94 GOP sweep.
Yet the mood of voters is so sour such a step may not be necessary, at least to win the House.
This year brings a rich harvest of vulnerable Democratic incumbents with targets on their backs - people who voted for the notorious Big Three: stimulus, cap and trade, and health care.
"Those are tombstone type of votes," said Roe, the GOP consultant. "Win, lose or draw, that'll be on their headstones."
In a recent Rasmussen poll, most voters said they viewed the Democratic agenda as "extreme," while a plurality saw the Republicans as mainstream.
Given that, it's hardly surprising that for many voters, a mere return to gridlock would be a relief.
ABOUT THE WRITER
E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.