TOPICS > Politics

Democrats, Republicans Optimistic in Midterm Elections

October 23, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: With Election Day just two weeks from tomorrow, time is growing short for the candidates or their parties to change the dynamic of their races. For an update on how the political landscape looks, we turn again to Jim VandeHei, political correspondent for the Washington Post, and Adam Nagourney, chief political correspondent for the New York Times.

And welcome back to you both.

Adam, yesterday you wrote that the Democrats’ mood was a mixture of glee, dread and hubris. Just how confident are they? Do you think, based on the evidence, they’re overconfident?

ADAM NAGOURNEY, Chief Political Correspondent, New York Times: Many Democrats are very, very confident. And you see it in the conversations with them; you see it in the way many of them are planning for post-November 7th. You know, you talk to people who normally have been very glum — because Democrats have had reason over the past 10 years to be glum — and they see no way they can’t win the House and probably win the Senate.

There are other Democrats who I think are more realistic. And part of it is because of the history of the past six years, where they’ve seen what some of them had hoped to be victories turn into defeats. And part of it’s because they realize that they’re up against a very tough adversary.

And, you know, as I think we were talking about this last week, polls do show Democrats with a lead in a bunch of House races across the country, but in many of those cases they’re small leads, and Democrats realize that the turn-out-the-vote operation that Republicans have could make a difference in those races. So some of that optimism some Democrats would say might be a little bit overstated, which seems reasonable to me.

Democratic hold

MARGARET WARNER: So, Jim, do the Democrats think they have at least 15 seats that they can count on, which is what they need to gain control, or is it still mushy, squishy?

JIM VANDEHEI, Political Reporter, Washington Post: It's still a bit squishy. They think they're at about 12. And I talk to strategists every day from both parties, and I think there's general agreement that about 10 to 12 seats are very likely to turn.

The question is: Do you get to those other three or four? It's certainly more likely now than it was a couple of weeks ago. The political environment is very favorable for Democrats. But politics, sort of like economics, it's not a precise science. It's indicators; it's trends.

And so you can look at the map and you can look at polls, and the one thing that's been very static is that voters prefer Democrats over Republicans by about 10 points. That's been happening for the last year.

The question is, now when you get into those individual districts and you look at those structural advantages that Republicans have, you know, such as name recognition -- you were in Florida not too long ago, and you saw Clay Shaw, who's very popular despite the Republican brand being scuffed. And he has a big monetary advantage.

The question is: Is that wave, is it going to be powerful enough to knock off, you know, that structural edge? And it's not totally clear. There's certainly more optimism than I've ever seen among Democrats in the last 10 years and certainly more pessimism among Republicans.

White House's attitude

MARGARET WARNER: Adam, let me ask you then about the White House's attitude here. And, of course, what's causing this big wave above all is unhappiness with the Iraq war.

Now, in recent days, we've heard -- the White House announced meetings President Bush is having with top military commanders. There's sort of a hint maybe there'd be flexibility, yet the president and Donald Rumsfeld said, both just last Friday, our goals remain the same. What is the White House trying to do here politically? And what impact is that having?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I think that -- remember, initially the White House was telling its candidates to run aggressively on the war in Iraq. In other words, saying that they could put Democrats on the defensive by arguing that the war was a good thing.

What we've seen over the past week or two weeks or so is, a, Republicans are not talking about the war at all, except for in the White House, and that Democrats are running against the war. Ad after ad, campaign appearances, they're specifically calling for timetables to get troops out. They're calling for Rumsfeld's withdraw.

And I think, when you talk to Republicans outside the White House, they will tell you that the Iraq war has turned into a major albatross for them and that the Democrats seem to be succeeding in nationalizing the race around the war in Iraq, which is something they've always feared.

Now, the president seems different. Over the past couple of days, they've been sending out conflicting messages. Today, the White House press secretary said that the president will no longer talk about staying the course.

But I think that, for the average viewer and I think also for Republicans outside the White House who are watching this with some concern, to say the least, it appears that the White House is still fundamentally sticking with their goal in Iraq -- which we could talk policy all we want -- politically, that's a problem this October.

President Bush's assessment

MARGARET WARNER: Jim, the president also said yesterday in an interview -- at least that was broadcast yesterday -- that the Democrats are not going to get control of Congress. Privately, what is the White House assessment?

JIM VANDEHEI: Well, I don't know what else people expect the president to say. He can't say, "Wow there's no way we can possibly win this." I do know -- you know, Karl Rove is telling people privately the same thing he's saying publicly, that he thinks that they can hold onto it very narrowly, maybe by three seats.

He says that because he looks at that turnout machine that worked so well for them in 2004 and in 2002. And they think that at the end of the day most people don't vote, and those people that do vote are loyal, they're passionate, and that they're better at getting their people out to vote.

Now, we have a new poll out for Washington Post for tomorrow morning that looks at independents. And it shows that independents, by almost two-to-one now, are trending Democratic. That's a bad, bad sign, because they are the swing vote. There isn't a swing vote in American politics right now, but they are it. And if they move to Democrats and you have Democrats already fired up, that's a very difficult formula to overcome.

Senator Barack Obama

MARGARET WARNER: Before we go, I also want to ask you both about the other -- a much commented-on political event in recent days. Democratic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois was asked on yesterday's "Meet the Press" whether he was still ruling out running for president in 2008, and here's what he said.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I don't want to be coy about this. Given the responses that I've been getting over the last several months, I have thought about the possibility. But I have not thought about it with the seriousness and depth that I think is required. My main focus right now is in the '06 and making sure that we retake the Congress. After November 7th, I'll sit down and consider it.

MARGARET WARNER: Adam, he's been asked this question over and over again. Why would he choose to answer it now the way he did?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: They've been talking about this for a while. He's been traveling the country. He's been getting ecstatic reactions wherever he goes. He's been getting very, very favorable press coverage in the form of some magazine stories.

A lot of people are saying to him, "You can really do this. There's ambivalence about Hillary Clinton and some of the other Democrats. You have a real good chance to do it." So I think he finally decided that he's thinking about, he's asked about it. He went on Russert, expecting that Russert would ask him this question again, and decided that now it's a time to say that, yes, he is thinking about it.

Now, whether he'll do it in the end, I don't know, but I think they're feeling is that he has an opportunity now and maybe he should seize it.

MARGARET WARNER: What can you add to that?

JIM VANDEHEI: Well, I think that -- obviously, I think lightning strikes very rarely for a politician, and it's striking right now for him. He's getting a lot of favorable coverage. A lot of people -- they sort of want a voice of change. They want a fresh face. And they see Barack Obama as that person. And he's got a good life story, so I think that gives him a big edge that a lot of Democrats don't have.

That said, he's young. When he gets in here, he's going to be running against a very formidable Hillary Rodham Clinton. There's no doubt that she's getting in. She has so much money. She has a very good organization, and she has more experience. I think it would be a classic showdown.

MARGARET WARNER: Was he, do you think, trying to signal to operatives around the country, "Don't necessarily have to sign up with anyone else; I'm going to make a decision soon"?

JIM VANDEHEI: No doubt about it. I mean, Mark Warner from Virginia just jumped out of the race. Now there are a bunch of free agents out there, people who raise money, people who put together ground operations in states. He's trying to give them a wink and a nod, "Stay loose. I might be jumping in here. You might want to work for me instead of that other Clinton."

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We're going...

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I was going to say really quickly, there's definitely a gap in this field. I think there's dissatisfaction or at least a lack of complete selling on Hillary Clinton, John Kerry or John Edwards and all the other ones. And I think he realizes this might be a moment to take advantage of.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and this is our moment to end. Adam and Jim, thank you.