Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He was White House political director for President Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
(CNN) -- Five things can describe what's on the minds of voters in this coming election.
The first three are issues: the economy, runaway government spending and jobs. The last two are emotions: fear and anger.
In a May CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 45 percent of Americans surveyed rated the economy as the most important issue facing the country, followed by the federal budget deficit at 12 percent. Other big issues like health care, illegal immigration, education, energy and environmental policies, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan trail behind.
No wonder voters are angry! Unemployment is high. Fifteen million unemployed and another 9-plus million underemployed. The economy is in the tank. The United States is involved in two unpopular wars. And one of the greatest man-made environmental catastrophes, the BP Gulf oil disaster, is live and on cable and network news 24 hours a day. The stock market had the biggest drop in May since 1940.
A recent Rasmussen poll states that only 27 percent are at least somewhat confident that Congress knows what it's doing when it comes to the economy. Forty-one percent in that same poll feel that a group of people randomly selected from the phone book would do a better job than the present Congress.
According to a May CBS poll, 82 percent want to give new people a chance and only 9 percent think Congress has done a good enough job to deserve reelection. That's the lowest reelect number I have seen in four decades of being involved in politics.
The fact that the United States owes $13 trillion in public debt has not stopped the runaway spending, and increasing the debt by a trillion or more every year forever will put an unbearable burden on the next generations.
It becomes clear when you realize that at this level of spending, in 20 years, all tax revenues will be exceeded by the costs of mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the interest on the national debt. Every other government program, such as defense, education, homeland security, law enforcement, national parks, etc., will be paid for by borrowing the money from somewhere.
That's if anybody will lend us money -- a nice legacy for our kids and grandkids.
Many incumbents are in trouble. And they too are fearful. The election is five months away. Everyone who knows anything about politics is predicting big Republican gains in both the House and the Senate. Whether they can win 40 seats in the House or 10 in the Senate and regain a majority is the question everyone wants an answer to. Voters will answer that question on November 2.
Most members are in safe districts, and once they get through the primary or nominating process, they will win easily. As of today, over 390 members of the House are running for re-election (39 are retiring or running for another office, and a couple more may lose in the primaries).
Their usual strength of being in the job is not such an asset this go-round, but still, most of those running for re-election will get re-elected because they are in safe districts. A good 60 or more House members, mostly Democrats, will feel the heat and could lose their $174,000-a-year jobs. And as always, there will be a few surprises.
Republicans need to be cautious too. Campaigns matter, and candidates matter most. Running against President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not enough. Candidates against these vulnerable Democrats must convince voters that they will listen to their concerns and do a more effective job of tackling the tough issues.
Since President Eisenhower in 1954, the average loss to a president's party in a first midterm election is 16 seats in the House and four Senate seats.
If Republicans don't double those numbers, they will have failed to execute the opportunity given them.
Gallup's latest generic polling shows the number of voters saying that they would vote for Republicans rising while the number saying they will vote for Democrats dropped. The 49 percent/43 percent lead for the Republicans is the largest that the pollster has ever recorded for the party. Democratic enthusiasm for voting is also falling while enthusiasm among Republicans is more intense.
But both parties have to be concerned about Americans' fear and anger. Republicans must convince voters that they have learned from their defeats in the past two election cycles and that they are willing to make the tough budget decisions.
That is the big challenge. And that's what voters want to hear in the campaign ahead.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.