Poll Vault

By

The Democrats probably don't deserve to do well in November's
elections. The party's national leaders have refused to make an
issue of President Bush's tax cuts, which will threaten deficits
through the decade; and many of them muffled their reservations
about war with Iraq in the hope of refocusing on more politically
congenial topics like prescription drugs and Social Security. The
Bush administration, by contrast, has maneuvered brilliantly over
the last six weeks, using the debate over Iraq to solidify the
Republicans' standing as the party of national security. "[T]he
President and the Republican Party are in a historic and positive
position," exulted Matthew Dowd, Republican National Committee
pollster and senior adviser, on October 12. On October 10, the
University of Virginia's Larry Sabato predicted Republican pickups
in the Senate and the House. And last week's cover story in
Barron's was headlined, "GOP SWEEP: Republicans look increasingly
likely to take the senate and hold onto the house in next month's
elections."Yet, if you look at the polling indicators that usually predict
party success in midterm elections--from "right track/wrong track"
opinion about the country's direction to views of which party will
better handle education and the economy--they favor the Democrats.
And if you look at specific races, you see indications that favor
the Democrats as well. In spite of the party's timidity and the
White House's political skill, the Democrats are actually in pretty
good shape. If voters focus on the economy rather than national
security in the remaining weeks, the Democrats may well increase
their edge in the Senate, recapture the House, and dramatically
reverse the Republican advantage in governorships.

Start with the measures that pollsters and political scientists
typically use to predict which party is going to come out on top in
national elections. When confidence in the economy and the
country's overall direction is rising, the party in the White House
gets the credit in national elections. When confidence is falling,
the opposition gains at the polls. For instance, in November 1986,
the percentage of Americans who thought the country was on the
"wrong track" exceeded those who thought it was on the "right track"
for the first time in four years. That fall, Democrats recaptured
the Senate. In the month of August 1994, Democrats remained
sanguine about their chances at the polls, but the percentage of
voters who thought the country was on the wrong track jumped from
63 percent to 68 percent. That November, Republicans won the House
and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. By contrast, in 1998,
when voters believed by 55 to 43 percent that "things are generally
going in the right direction," the party in the White House--the
Democrats--picked up seats in the House and the Senate.

This year the leading indicators are heading south. In April, a
Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans were satisfied, and
37 percent dissatisfied, with "the way things are going in the
United States at this time." By September those numbers had
collapsed to 47 percent satisfied and 51 percent dissatisfied. The
highly regarded Ipsos-Reid surveys found a similar pattern: In
April, 54 percent thought that the country was going in the "right
direction" compared with 38 percent who thought otherwise. By early
this month the numbers were essentially reversed, with 50 percent
believing the country was on the wrong track and only 44 percent
believing it was on the right track. Confidence in the economy has
also plummeted. In May, Gallup found 49 percent of Americans
thought the economy was "getting better" and 34 percent thought it
was "getting worse." By the end of September, 52 percent thought
the economy was declining, and only 33 percent thought it was
improving.

Voters' perception of how the country is doing feeds their view of
which party's policies they prefer. If they think the country is
going in the right direction, they credit the policies of the party
in power, and vice versa. Of course, voters already favored the
Democrats on key domestic issues such as the environment and Social
Security. More significant is what has happened in those areas of
domestic policy where Republicans held an advantage. Last May,
according to Gallup, voters preferred congressional Republicans to
Democrats on taxes 43 percent to 36 percent; by the end of last
month they preferred Democrats 50 percent to 38 percent. Last June,
voters were almost evenly divided over whether congressional
Democrats or Republicans could best improve education; by late
September they favored Democrats by an astounding 53 percent to 31
percent. There is now no domestic policy on which voters prefer
congressional Republicans to Democrats, and, except on gun control,
the margins by which they prefer Democrats are well into the double
digits.

The only area in which Republicans retain an advantage is national
security, where voters think congressional Republicans would do a
better job on foreign affairs by 49 percent to 33 percent. This
perception probably depressed Democratic poll numbers during the
congressional debate over war with Iraq, when the public and the
press were focused on national security. But with the debate
resolved, voters are likely in the coming weeks to return to their
traditional preoccupation with domestic issues--and to their
preference for Democratic approaches.

At first glance the Democrats seem to have done little to merit this
growing support for their domestic policies. They don't have a
national program for improving education or reviving the economy.
Most Democratic campaigns have been narrowly focused and
uncreative: They have slammed Republican plans to privatize Social
Security, they have called for including prescription-drug coverage
for seniors under Medicare, and they have attacked Republicans for
condoning corporate corruption.

But this timid agenda may prove surprisingly effective in today's
peculiar economic climate. The American economy is not in a
traditional recession, as it was during the 1982 election. Most
Americans are not worried about losing their jobs right now. But
they do worry that a fall in the stock market is depleting their
savings and could eventually send the economy into a tailspin that
would threaten their jobs. They are anxious about the future rather
than the present-- and that gives the Democrats' issues a
particular resonance that they would not have in a boom (when
voters aren't very worried about the future) or a during a deep
recession (when they are fixated on immediate relief). Voters are
angry about corporate corruption because it has robbed workers and
stockholders of their savings. They don't want the government's
savings program--Social Security--to be subject to the rise and
fall of the Dow Jones index. And they worry about having to pay out
their savings for rising drug costs. They prefer the simple,
Democratic idea of plugging prescription-drug coverage into
Medicare to the more complex--and far less generous--Republican and
drug company plan of forcing seniors to pay premiums to private
insurance companies for drug coverage.

And if the Democratic proposals are timid, the Republicans
alternatives are either irrelevant or nonexistent. Some Republicans
have resorted to the formula the party first used successfully in
1978--advocating cuts in taxes and spending while accusing the
Democrats of being "tax-and-spenders." In Tennessee, Republican
gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary has attacked his Democratic
opponent, Phil Bredesen, for raising property taxes three times as
mayor of Nashville. In Fort Collins, Colorado, Republican
congressional candidate Marilyn Musgrave has branded Democrat Stan
Matsunaka "Stan the Tax Man" and "Stan Taxsunaka" because, as a
state legislator, he opposed a Republican tax- cut plan. But these
appeals don't resonate the way they used to. Voters no longer see
tax cuts as the key to prosperity--in a poll last spring
respondents said by a 72 percent to 23 percent margin that they
would be more likely to vote for a candidate who promised to
balance the budget than for one who promised to cut taxes. Which
may help explain why most of the Republicans who are using this
kind of appeal--Hilleary, Georgia Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss,
and Iowa gubernatorial candidate Doug Gross to name three prominent
examples--are trailing their opponents in the polls.

Most Republican candidates are turning away from traditional
conservative economic appeals and instead are running Orwellian ad
campaigns in which they claim that they never wanted to privatize
Social Security and that they favor the Democrats'
prescription-drug programs. They are denying that they ever tried
to hamstring the Securities and Exchange Commission, and they are
trying to portray themselves as corporate reformers and their
opponents as sleazy lobbyists and speculators. For instance, when
Jim Talent--the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri--was in
Congress, he sponsored legislation to divert 16 percent of Social
Security taxes to retirement accounts managed by private managers.
Now Talent says he "has not voted and will not vote to fully or
partially privatize Social Security." In South Florida, Republican
E. Clay Shaw Jr. voted this year for the GOP prescription-drug plan
that would have bypassed Medicare in favor of private insurance
companies. Now he boasts that he voted for "a comprehensive
prescription-drug benefit under Medicare." In Colorado, Republican
Senate candidate Wayne Allard--who tried to block accounting reform
in 2000 and was initially indifferent to corporate reform--runs ads
criticizing corporate executives for "engaging in fraud" and
announcing "Wayne Allard said, `Enough.'" But judging from the
polls--which show the Democrats' edge on Social Security,
prescription drugs, and corporate reform to be as large as
ever--this GOP political cross-dressing isn't working.

In the past, Republicans have overcome their disadvantage on
economic issues by using social wedge issues, such as guns and
abortion. But in this election Republicans are likely to be more
hurt than helped by these subjects. Chastened by their failure to
win the votes of rural and Southern voters in 2000, Democrats have
nominated candidates in those areas who oppose gun control and who
are, in some cases, anti-abortion. Democrat Jim Humphreys, running
against Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, opposes gun control.
South Carolina Senate candidate Alex Sanders is a member of the
National Rifle Association (NRA). Rural Pennsylvania Representative
Tim Holden is anti-abortion and anti- gun control. By contrast, the
GOP, outside the urban Northeast, is still dominated by
conservative interest groups that demand adherence to their
positions--even if that makes them vulnerable to moderate Democrats.
Because of this, Republican candidates closely identified with the
religious right or the NRA could lose to moderate Democrats in
California, Kansas, Michigan, Illinois, Tennessee, Colorado,
Arizona, Maryland, and New Jersey. In Kansas, Republicans chose
Treasurer Tim Shallenburger in a gubernatorial primary against more
moderate opponents. Shallenburger opposes abortion, supports
citizens carrying concealed weapons, and opposes tax increases for
any purpose--even to make up cuts in education funding. Although
Kansas is a rock-ribbed Republican state, Shallenburger is well
behind moderate Democrat Kathleen Sebelius in the polls.

The governors' races offer the best window into how voters'
pessimism and their preference for Democratic social and economic
policies could affect the November election. In these races the
presumptive war with Iraq counts little, if at all. What counts is
voters' perception of what the candidates will do about issues such
as education and the economy. Republicans currently control 27
governors' mansions, Democrats 21, and Independents two. Thirty-six
of those seats are being contested this year. If the current
favorites win, Democrats will have gained eight seats--seven at the
expense of Republicans--leading to a split of 29 Democrats, 20
Republicans, and one Independent. The last time such a dramatic
shift occurred was in 1994-- when Republicans won a net gain of
eleven seats. In that year, of course, Republicans also captured the
Senate and the House.

The Democrats' likely gubernatorial successes suggest important
inroads in what were once Republican or closely contested regions.
In the 1990s, the industrial Midwest and the mid-Atlantic region
were major battlegrounds between the parties. Up until 1998,
Republicans controlled governors' mansions in Michigan, Illinois,
Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. But with this
fall's election, Democrats will probably gain control of all these
states except Ohio. (Even in Ohio, where Democrats have suffered
from an incompetent party organization, a token Democratic
gubernatorial candidate is running within ten points of incumbent
Republican Robert Taft.) Democrats are also doing well in Sun Belt
swing states, such as Arizona, which have been slowly turning their
way over the last decade.

The Senate contests are less certain because it is hard to judge how
deeply they have been affected by the debate over Iraq. Even here,
however, polls look good for the Democrats. According to the most
recent opinion polls, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, one of the
Democrats' most vulnerable incumbents, has pulled nine points ahead
of challenger Norm Coleman, and Democratic candidates are either
tied with or ahead of Republican incumbents in Arkansas, Colorado,
and New Hampshire. In Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, and New Jersey,
Democratic seats once deemed at risk now appear secure. If the
election had been held October 11, the day the Senate voted on
Iraq, Democrats would have come out with a 51 to 48 advantage--52
counting Independent Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords. (And that's
assuming vulnerable Democratic incumbents lose in Missouri and
South Dakota.) In the coming weeks, as war with Iraq recedes as an
issue, some of these races should turn further toward the
Democrats.

House seats are even more difficult to predict because there are so
few nonpartisan polls by which to evaluate candidates' chances. But
there are indicators that the Democrats are running even or
slightly ahead. In Newsweek's October 10 poll of generic
congressional choices, Democrats led by 46 percent to 43 percent
among likely voters. Republican pollster Fabrizio, McLaughlin %amp%
Associates has surveyed voters in the 40 most competitive House
districts, as defined by The Cook Political Report. In
mid-September, Republicans led by 43 percent to 38 percent; at the
end of September, Republicans and Democrats were tied at 41
percent. Because twice as many of these contested seats are
currently held by Republicans, if the Democrats win a little more
than half of them, they will pick up several additional
seats--perhaps enough to retake the House.

For the GOP to win back the Senate and retain the House, voters
would have to put national security above economic and social
concerns. To this end, Republican Senate candidates in Georgia,
Minnesota, and South Dakota have run ads insinuating that their
Democratic opponents are soft on Saddam Hussein and Osama bin
Laden. But these attacks don't seem to have made a difference in
any of these races--including Minnesota, where Wellstone voted
against the administration's Iraq resolution. According to the
Zogby poll, Wellstone actually went from a six-point deficit to a
nine-point advantage during the time Coleman was attacking his
credibility on foreign policy. Wellstone reversed Coleman's
advantage among Twin Cities voters, Independent voters, and
women--suggesting, perhaps, a backlash against Coleman's attacks or
even support for Wellstone's dissent on the war in Iraq.

More to the point, past precedent suggests that by November 5,
foreign policy will no longer overshadow domestic concerns. Midterm
elections in 1982 (when U.S.-Soviet tensions were at their height)
and in 1990 (when Iraq was occupying Kuwait) were both dominated by
domestic issues, and the party in power lost ground because of
voters' worries about the economy. Republicans like to point to the
1962 midterm elections, conducted only one week after John F.
Kennedy successfully faced down the Soviet Union in the Cuban
missile crisis. In those elections the Democrats lost only four
House seats, while picking up three Senate seats. But the
circumstances then were quite different. When voters went to the
polls in 1962, the air was still thick with tension from the
crisis, and Kennedy and the Democrats benefited from the rush in
popularity that comes in the immediate aftermath of a dramatic
military success. More important, Kennedy and the Democrats didn't
have to worry about the economy: During Kennedy's first 22 months
the United States had climbed out of a recession, with unemployment
falling from 7.1 percent in May 1961 to 5.4 percent in October
1962. While comparable polling measures are not available, the
Americans who voted that November probably felt optimistic about
where the economy and the country were going. This year pessimism
abounds.

The White House itself recognizes that Republicans cannot rely
exclusively on war with Iraq as we approach November 5. In these
last three weeks, Bush will reportedly shift the campaign debate
from foreign policy to the economy. Perhaps that will boost
Republican chances. But it is equally possible that it will merely
speed the transition from a political terrain where the Republicans
have an advantage to one where the Democrats do. If that happens,
Republicans will be in trouble. One of the parties might get swept
this November, but it is not likely to be the Democrats.

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