Forget the hype, midterm elections will bring little change

October 21, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- With the midterm elections less than two weeks away, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is no theme to this pudding. The results apparently will tell us very little.

When the campaign year began in January, it seemed at least possible that the party controlling the White House might reverse the usual pattern and actually gain seats at the midpoint of the president's second term.

Indeed, because so many House Republicans appeared vulnerable, the Democrats had at least a realistic chance to get the 11 seats needed to regain control. The economy was booming and President Clinton was enjoying high approval ratings. Speaker Newt Gingrich was unpopular, and Republicans were clearly uneasy.

By Labor Day, however, the tawdry Monica Lewinsky affair had so tarnished the president that the Democrats appeared headed for further losses in both the Senate and House. The conventional wisdom was that Democratic turnout would fall far below even the normally low level for Democrats in nonpresidential years.

But now the opinion polls suggest there has been at least some backlash against the Republicans because of what is perceived as an excessively partisan manner of conducting the impeachment process.

So the new conventional wisdom among political professionals in both parties is that the results will be so perfunctory that it will be impossible to draw any significant inferences about the message of the electorate.

This is a sharp contrast to the situation in the last midterm election, in 1994. That was the year the voters made the election a national referendum in which they rejected both Mr. Clinton and the Democratic leadership of Congress and embraced the Republicans' Contract with America.

This year there is more evidence that the returns will turn on the usual things -- the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates and, perhaps most important, the amounts of money they have to pour into their campaigns in the last two weeks.

The Republicans enjoy three distinct advantages entering the final two weeks of the campaign.

First, despite Mr. Clinton's continued high ratings for his job performance, the Democratic Party has been significantly demoralized by his affair with Ms. Lewinsky and his attempts to keep it covered up. On Nov. 3, turnout may not decline as dramatically as Democrats feared a few weeks ago, but party strategists concede there is no enthusiasm for the White House among party constituencies, except perhaps African-American voters.

By contrast, the Republicans believe they have energized one important constituency, the religious right, by their hard line with Clinton on the Lewinsky matter.

Second, the Republicans enjoy a huge advantage in money available to finance late rounds of television commercials. National Democrats' plans to raise big money have been hampered by the Lewinsky affair and the party has been obliged to spend heavily in defending itself against charges of excessive and illegal fundraising in 1996.

Because there has been so little popular interest in the campaign, such 11th-hour saturation bombing of the airwaves planned by the Republicans can be disproportionately effective, particularly when Democrats lack the resources to respond in kind.

Third, the Republicans hold an enormous advantage in the major industrial states and Florida in which their candidates for governor are en route to landslide victories. The one notable exception is California.

The Democrats are not exactly barefoot, however. Polls show they are considered on the right side on some issues important to voters, including Social Security and education. They can also blame the Republicans in Congress for killing popular campaign-finance re form and tobacco legislation.

Midterm elections that become nationalized and send a clear message to Washington are rare. It happened after Watergate in 1974 and then 20 years later. This time the outlook is for modest Republican gains in both the House and Senate, in an election whose only message may be that many Americans have given up on the political system as a way to change their lives.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 10/21/98

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