In a typical election year, it would be too soon to make predictions about which party will win control of Congress. Voters don't really begin tuning in until after Labor Day, the thinking goes. But this November's vote is shaping up to be no ordinary election. A climate favoring change away from Republican control is already clearly in place.
The biggest worry point for Republicans is the intensity factor: How interested are the voters and how likely are they to turn out for the election? In that category, polls show Democrats enjoying a significant advantage.
"The question to me is much less, 'Hey, are Democrats going to take control of Congress?' as much as it is, 'Hey, can the Republicans do anything to stop it?' " says Amy Walter, House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
The Democrats need a net gain of only 15 seats to take over the 435-seat House, where the balance is currently 231 Republicans to 201 Democrats, with one independent and two vacancies. With only about 50 competitive House races, both parties' campaign committees are concentrating their resources in a targeted fashion. For once, the Democrats are competitive with the Republicans in fundraising this cycle, but the organization of Democrats' turnout operations remains a point of fierce contention in party circles. It remains unclear whether the Democrats can build an infrastructure to match the Republicans' time-tested turnout program.
In the end, Democratic intensity may trump Republican organization on Nov. 7. But in a year that many Democrats consider the party's best chance to retake the House since it lost control in the political tsunami of 1994, voter turnout remains a critical question.
"There's a big anti-Republican wave building," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster working for several House candidates. "But that wave will crash up against a very stable political structure, and nobody will know till Wednesday morning [the day after the election] which is more important – the size of the wave or the stability of the structure."
One element that affects "the stability of the structure" is open seats, which are typically more vulnerable to takeover by the opposition party than are seats held by incumbents. This cycle, the Republicans are protecting only eight open seats among the 36 deemed competitive by the Cook report, and the Democrats are protecting only two out of the 10 on Cook's list.