WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress are home celebrating American independence, the male members by spilling mustard on their red neckties (do they wear them even at picnics? probably) and getting their wingtips close to the grass roots. Members of both parties must be nervously wondering who is going to vote Nov. 3.
To regain control of the House, Democrats need to gain only 11 seats, but that would be the best gain for a party holding the presidency since the emergence of the two-party system. Abraham Lincoln's Republicans lost seats in 1862, and since then the party with the White House has lost House seats in every off-year election except 1934, when Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats gained nine.
However, as turnout declines, the potential for volatility increases, because the decline may not be symmetrical -- may not be evenly distributed among Republicans and Democrats. And according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, the decline of turnout continues.
In 1996 record sums were spent by parties, candidates and interest groups to excite an electorate swollen by a net increase of 5 million registered voters. (This was partly a result of the "motor voter" law which enables people to register when they get their driver's licenses. What's next -- "pizza voter," whereby the guy who delivers your pizza will register you?) The electorate remained unstimulated.
The 1996 decline of turnout -- the continuation of a 36-year trend that was interrupted only by a small uptick in 1992 -- produced the lowest turnout since the enfranchisement of women in 1924. This year there was a surge in voting in June in California, where about 1-in-9 U.S. voters lives, because of that state's new open primary and contests for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, the Republican Senate nomination and several controversial initiatives. Nevertheless, CSAE reports that, nationwide, participation in statewide primaries held through the middle of June indicates that when all primaries have been held, participation will have been the lowest ever, and November may see a record low turnout.
Appealing to the bases
November may be largely an "election of the bases," dominated by the motivated, ideological bases of the parties. If "swing" voters stay home in droves, there could be a paradoxical result: At a moment of national contentment, campaigns could become ideologically hot in order to energize the bases. But each party has its own problem.
The Democrats' is that in off-year elections turnout drops sharpest among low-income and minority voters. The task of making an ideological appeal to such groups is complicated by the fact of the country's conservative mood.
The Republicans' problem is twofold. First, in the last off-year elections, Republicans triumphed by promising that, given a congressional majority, they would transform Washington. Two years ago they did end two large entitlement programs dating from the 1930s -- agricultural price supports and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But perhaps their emblematic transformation (emblematic of their own transformation, going native) has been of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which now has a swollen membership of 75 -- about one-sixth of the House. This year it produced the oinking highway bill -- an entitlement that can be called Aid to Politicians with Dependent Construction Contractors.
Second, the Republican base is increasingly composed of "social issues conservatives" who are increasingly skeptical of the pertinence of politics to what concerns them most -- the condition of the culture. They may half-consciously hanker for a William Jennings Bryan of the right: In his long career, Bryan spent little time in public office (two terms in the House, 27 months as secretary of state) but for two decades he was the foremost Democrat, an inspiriting preacher.
If few voters show up at the polls in November, it may be because, as Jonathan Rauch, a National Journal writer, says, "What do you do when your car is up to its windshield in mud? You get out and walk. That's what many Americans are doing now in response to government's inability to get them where they want to go." However, there is much more to civic engagement than just voting.
Mr. Rauch notes that since 1980, while voting has been declining, the portion of Americans volunteering with charitable or social service groups has risen from about 30 percent to more than half, and per capita charitable giving has risen a remarkable 40 percent. This is not the behavior of a nation sunk in apathy.
Rather, it reflects only a limited resignation -- what Mr. Rauch calls "enlightened defeatism" about government's infirmities. Otherwise, Americans are getting on with their lives with a spring in their steps.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 7/05/98