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Greenfield: The 4 questions for '06

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- All through the 2004 season, from the first caucus in Iowa to election night in November, one of my jobs was to ask and answer "The Four Questions."

No, this was not an attempt to re-create a Passover Seder, but to move beyond the merely tactical conversations that dominate election nights and try to find broader themes to what was happening.

Now that the midterm campaigns are under way, I've started to think about what four questions might make sense to ask and answer on this election night.

Here's my (very) preliminary thinking:

Is all politics really local? Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's famous aphorism is quoted ad nauseam every election season, but its wisdom is very dubious. Even in congressional elections, national themes can dominate races, unseating incumbents who have in past elections won overwhelming support from grateful constituents. Midterms were "nationalized" in 1974 (Watergate), 1982 (a recession), 1994 (anti-Clinton sentiment) 1998 (backlash against House Republicans overreaching on the Lewinsky scandal) and 2002 (terror). Will national questions -- disaffection with the Iraq war, worries over Democrats on terror -- overwhelm local issues?

Unhappy voters: How much will it matter? If voters are dissatisfied with the way things are going, they'll turn out the party in power, right? Sounds like the right answer is: Duh! But in 2004, we saw voters re-elect a president even though they said they preferred change to continuity and thought the country was seriously off on the wrong track.

If the current discontent holds, could that still happen, either because voters don't like the alternative, or because Republicans are better at turning out their base?

To put the question another way: Will "had enough" be enough? That was the GOP slogan in 1946, when postwar impatience with government controls and scandals led to a Republican capture of both houses of Congress.

Will Democrats catch up on turnout? In 2004, Democrats and their allies actually outspent the GOP and their allies, but the Election Day operation of Republicans, a four-years-in-the-making project of Karl Rove and company proved the difference.

This year, the Democrats appear late off the mark in tapping the wealthy supporters who underwrote the formally independent vote-getting operations. Will they show up again this year, or will Republicans have a significant money advantage? And even if they don't, how well have Democrats and their allies built their turnout machine?

Is there a "sleeping giant"? Over the last few months, primaries in Arizona and Colorado, and the special election in California to replace Duke Cunningham, suggest that immigration could be a potent issue. The president's recent campaign on Iraq and terror have overshadowed that issue, but we may see a real irony here: Republicans trying to hold on to the Congress by running hard against the idea of "comprehensive reform" embraced by their own president.

Will they do that? Will it work? And if immigration is not a "sleeping giant," will some other issue emerge that will help determine who controls Congress?

As I mentioned, these are preliminary, maybe-yes, maybe-no candidates for the Four Questions. If you've got better ones, I'm happy to steal -- uh, consider them.


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