Relatively content electorate bodes well for incumbents in November

January 16, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Two veteran pollsters, Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake, have been working together for nearly seven years now in an unorthodox partnership. They jointly conduct extensive voter surveys and then provide their own analyses of the same data, each with only a modest spin in favor of his or her own party. They call their product the Battleground Poll.

Comfort zone

This year's edition suggests that the 1998 congressional elections are likely to be an unusually low-key battleground. Both pollsters say the outlook is for what Ms. Lake calls a ''status-quo election,'' because voters are feeling generally comfortable. The degree of intensity among partisan voters, they say, is likely to determine which party fares best.

The picture Mr. Goeas and Ms. Lake paint is one of an electorate that, while still believing the country is ''on the wrong track,'' is satisfied with the accomplishments of President Clinton and the Republican- controlled Congress working together, and ready to reward incumbents in Congress for those accomplishments.

Furthermore, they find that more voters (49 percent) now favor split government -- one party in the White House, the other controlling Congress -- than wanting one party to control both (40 percent). And 43 percent prefer the present situation -- a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in charge of Congress -- than the other way around (28 percent).

All this suggests to Mr. Goeas and Ms. Lake that the approaching congressional elections won't see much basic change, especially if Mr. Clinton and the GOP leaders continue to get things done on a bipartisan basis.

Smooth sailing

As the two parties gear up for November, Mr. Goeas says, there is ''no clear road map'' to success for either side. No single issue is dominating the thinking of voters, with crime the concern of 13 percent, drugs 10 percent.

Nor does the independent or ''swing'' voter seem aroused for the off-year elections, they report, so if either party is to bust out of the complacent mood it will require generating an enthusiasm and activism among party regulars that isn't being seen now.

In trying to rally the loyal troops, both pollsters say, the parties have to be careful that they don't stir the opposition out of its slumber by becoming too negative or harsh, which distinctly turns voters off. And for Republicans, Mr. Goeas says, the best attitude to take toward President Clinton is to lay off him, because his cooperation with the congressional Republicans is responsible in a significant way for the general good feeling toward them.

''I believe Bill Clinton is more our ally than our enemy,'' Mr. Goeas says. ''If Clinton continues his center-right policies, this does not bode well for Democratic candidates because it has a strong potential to further polarize his own party.''

Mr. Goeas notes that Mr. Clinton, in his current overtures to Democratic liberals, has adopted a style of ''small moves and big rhetoric'' designed to hold the center-right at the same time.

Mr. Clinton has always been a politician given to ''big rhetoric,'' but Ms. Lake suggests that for all his talents as a salesman, he is not getting the credit he might have expected from his partisanship with the Republican Congress. She notes that except for welfare reform, the Republicans get more credit, notably on fiscal issues such as balancing the budget and protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Among senior voters particularly, both pollsters say, Mr. Clinton and the Democrats are slipping, out of the seniors' concern that Mr. Clinton's proposals to extend Medicare to lower-age recipients may undermine the security of their own benefits.

GOP villain

Ms. Lake says the Republicans have a more dependable base than the Democrats looking to November. Mr. Goeas says ''the Republican base needs a villain,'' but has him in House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who in pushing the old liberal Democratic agenda may make the combination of a more centrist Democratic president working with a GOP Congress seem just about right for an electorate that seems at ease with the way things are.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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