I confess to being fixated on the race for control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Every morning I check for the latest polls in Indiana’s 2nd congressional district, New Mexico’s 1st, Connecticut’s 4th, Pennsylvania’s 6th. In all I’m following 53 races, all of them except Texas’s 22nd involving candidates I never heard of before this fall.

These races are excruciatingly hard to predict. Polling is sporadic and unreliable. Most of the Web sites that predict the outcomes in individual districts base their conclusions on an average of the last several polls, which can be as recent as yesterday and as ancient as early September in some cases. The best indication of how hard it is going to be for Republicans to hold the House (which I still believe, albeit with less and less conviction, they will do), is the Cook Political Report’s comparison of pre-election polls from 1994, when Republicans picked up 52 seats to take control of the House for the first time in forty years, to polls that ask similar questions today (see the article dated October 30, and scroll down to Cook’s National Journal column of October 24).

Cook compares the 1994 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on several key questions with the same poll’s questions at the same stage of the race today. Cook points out that this poll is a bipartisan effort of two of the most respected names in the business, Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bob McInturff, who succeeded the late Robert Teeter. The poll involves some of the most FAQ in American politics:

Right Track vs. Wrong Track
1994 RT 38%, WT 48%
2006 RT 26%, WT 61%

Congressional Approval Rating
1994 Approve 24%, Disapprove 62% (net minus 38%)
2006 Approve 16%, Disapprove 59% (net minus 43%)

Presidential Approval Rating
1994 Approve Clinton 48%, Disapprove 43%
2006 Approve Bush 38%, Disapprove 52%

Generic Ballot
1994 Republicans 44%, Democrats 38% (R +6)
2006 Democrats 52%, Republicans 37% (D +15)

The climate is much worse for Republicans today than it was for Democrats in 1994. And the Democrats have to pick up only 15 seats to regain control of the House, a much smaller obstacle than Republicans faced twelve years ago. But there are still factors that favor Republicans. One is that Republicans do not have nearly as many vulnerable seats as the Democrats did in 1994, and in particularly they have fewer open seats, which represent the best chance for the opposing party to win. Another Republican advantage is in money to spend–but the edge, $77 million to $67 million, is smaller than in the past, according to Cook. The third advantage is the GOP’s acknowledged superiority in get-out-the-vote techniques. But Cook says that this edge is one to two points at most. Still, a point or two in GOTV could be decisive in an election year when (according to Cook) 27 races are too close to call. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s polls!