February 15, 2002

The Long Winding Road to the Midterm Elections

by Andrew Kohut, Director
Special to America Online

About this time four years ago, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the GOP were eagerly anticipating the fall elections. And why not? The Monica Lewinsky scandal looked as if it would submerge the Democrats – the smart political money had Republicans winning 15 or 20 House seats and perhaps even a filibuster-proof Senate. But by November, Republicans were tallying their losses, and former Speaker Gingrich was looking for a job. Look back eight years ago at this time and try to recall the signs of brewing public anger that would end 40 years Democratic rule of Capitol Hill.

The political trends that seem so clear in January and February often have a nasty habit of turning around by November – just ask Al Gore, who at this point in 2000, appeared destined to ride peace and prosperity to the White House.

So in assessing the 2002 election, a healthy dose of caution is in order. Aside from all the possible ramifications of the terror attacks, several variables make this election a forecaster’s nightmare – continuing economic uncertainty, the historically close margins in the House and especially the Senate, the ten-year congressional redistricting, and the shifting patterns in gubernatorial races.

In the House, where Democrats can regain control with a pickup of six seats, as few as two dozen highly contested races may hold the key. The Senate’s nearly even partisan split mirrors the close political division in the nation at large – Republicans can recapture control with the gain of a single seat. The GOP has dominated the nation’s governors’ mansions for years, but that may be starting to change. Republicans will be the incumbent party in 23 of 36 governors’ races, and the recession is wreaking havoc on state budgets.

It is never easy, nearly nine months out, to predict what will be on voters’ minds when they go to the polls. The terror attacks and the subsequent war have made public opinion even more inscrutable. How long can the extraordinary level of national unity last? How long will President Bush maintain his unprecedented popularity? Is the upbeat public mood the “new normal” or will old patterns of partisanship and dissension return before Nov. 5? Does the Enron scandal have partisan fallout?

And then there are more parochial issues and concerns, which always loom large but may be even more important this year, because of the narrow margins in the Senate and House. Can Democratic South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson survive a GOP onslaught and a formidable opponent? Will a fierce Republican primary in New Hampshire harm the party’s chances of retaining its seat there? Will House redistricting give an advantage to either party?

Public’s Agenda Emerging

Still, the public’s priorities have become a bit clearer in recent weeks, and both parties have begun to reveal their strategies for the fall. Obviously, the top two problems on the public’s agenda are terrorism and the economy, but the latter is moving up and terrorism appears to be fading a bit as a public concern. A mid-October survey by Gallup found that, by more than two-to-one, the public cited terrorism as the top concern. By January, there were more mentions of the economy than terrorism as the top problem facing the country.

The political implications of this shift are already being felt. In his Jan. 29 State of the Union address, President Bush bluntly described how much the United States still needs to do to defeat terrorism – indeed, well more than half his speech was devoted to antiterrorism efforts abroad and at home. Yet he also vowed to get the economy moving, summing up his approach with a single word – “jobs.”

Bush’s speech served to remind Americans, if any needed reminding, of the continuing threat of future terrorism – an issue on which the GOP holds a huge lead over Democrats. At the same time, he demonstrated his intention not to ignore the economy, where the GOP’s advantage is less pronounced and Democrats perceive some vulnerability.

Barring another terrorist attack, it is hard to imagine anything other than fixing the economy as this year’s number one issue. While the recent economic news has been fairly positive, public opinion on the economy is usually a lagging indicator. In some polls, it even took until 1996 for the public to be convinced that the nation was out of recession.

While expressing unqualified support of Bush on the war, Democrats have sought to play to their traditional strengths – healthcare, retirement programs and the environment. But many of those issues, which rated near the top of the public’s agenda a year ago, have slipped into the political ether since Sept. 11. Pew found that the proportion of the public rating Medicare prescription drug benefits as a top priority has tumbled 19 points since last January; strengthening Medicare has fallen 16 points as a top priority; and HMO reform also has dropped 16 points.

Consequently, Republicans currently are faring much better than Democrats in this battle of competing agendas. They have the edge on the most important public priorities, and Bush’s popularity has helped the GOP in areas in which they had been weak – such as education. Yet if the public’s interest in healthcare and entitlements likely has been suspended, it has not been abolished. If peace persists and the economy comes back slowly, these issues could well come roaring back by fall.

National or Local?

Presidential advisor Karl Rove recently made headlines by suggesting that GOP candidates could slipstream on Bush’s popularity by campaigning on the president’s successes in waging the war on terrorism. Not surprisingly, Rove’s approach enraged Democrats, but the idea of tapping into the president’s 80% approval ratings seems obvious from a political standpoint.

Yet this strategy entails significant risks. First, the public may turn against attempts to “politicize” the war. Perhaps more important, while Bush has boosted the GOP’s ratings on issues, he has had less of a positive impact for Republicans in the generic congressional ballot. Indeed, recent polls show neither party holding a clear edge.

History is replete with cases of wartime presidents who were unable convert their victories abroad into electoral triumphs for their parties. As in the past, local concerns – farmers’ woes in South Dakota, the budget crisis in Florida – may be more decisive factors than the ease with which US forces dispatched the Taliban. In a mid-January NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 43% cited a congressional candidate’s record as an important factor in deciding their vote, against 20% who mentioned Bush’s endorsement.

The lessons of the past two midterm elections are also instructive. In both cases, it took voter anger to nationalize the elections. Republicans triggered a backlash in 1998 when they pushed for Clinton’s impeachment. Four years earlier, Democrats only belatedly saw the public anger that was building against Congress and government – and paid by losing their 40-year control of Capitol Hill.

The mood this year is completely different – the public feels better about its leaders, and members of both parties, than it has in years. It wants, rather it expects, the wartime spirit of bipartisan cooperation that prevailed in the wake of the attacks to carry over to this year’s debates over the economy and health care. That will not happen – the level of partisan tension seems to increase by the week – but it is in neither party’s interest to be perceived as too aggressive, or as overplaying their political hands.