Voter shifts make it tough to call congressional races Kentucky, Indiana may yield early clues

November 03, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The unpredictable, often inscrutable election of 1998 should begin to yield significant results shortly after o'clock this evening, when polls in the bellwether states of Kentucky and Indiana begin to shut down.

Only then, when hard numbers begin to appear, will Congress watchers really know if there will be any significant change in the balance of power on Capitol Hill.

"I am less certain about this election than any time in the 22 years I've been watching elections," said Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

At 6 p.m., the polls close in Indiana and parts of Kentucky. That will give added importance to the neck-and-neck Kentucky Senate race to replace retiring Democrat Wendell H. Ford. A strong showing by Democratic Rep. Scotty Baesler would signal the Democrats' last-minute appeal to minority voters may have prodded them to show up at the polls. A victory for Republican Rep. Jim Bunning would indicate that Christian conservatives held sway in a low-turnout year.

Indiana should be another early clue to the parties' fortunes. Former Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh is expected to cruise to victory in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Daniel R. Coats, but Hoosier House races are much tighter. Election watchers should know early whether Democrats can hold the seat of retiring Rep. Lee Hamilton in a district that leans Republican. If they do, congressional observers believe, it could be a long night for Republicans.

Conversely, if Republicans can upset Democratic incumbent Julia Carson in Indianapolis, the tide could help the GOP bolster its control of the House and the Senate -- and add new momentum to the drive to impeach the president.

At 7 p.m., Washington watchers will turn their attention to South Carolina, the heavily Republican state where veteran Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings has faced a stiff challenge from Republican Rep. Bob Inglis.

"The Senate races in Kentucky and South Carolina could be a real bellwether," said Stanley Greenberg, President Clinton's former pollster. "There's a potential to show a mini-resurgence of the Democratic Party in the South, or at least to show they have a pulse."

It has been a particularly difficult year for professional prognosticators in Washington, who have been buffeted by voter shifts. Early this year, Democrats seemed united around a president and an agenda that they hoped would propel them to power in Congress. But the White House sex scandal seemed to push the electorate back toward the Republicans.

Most recently, voters have swung back toward the Democrats. Yesterday, a CNN / USA Today / Gallup poll of 1,105 likely voters found that 49 percent favored the Democrat in their local House contest, while 45 percent favored the Republican.

A similar poll taken by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found likely voters split between Democrats and Republicans 46 percent to 44 percent, a "significant change" since mid-October, when Republicans held a 5-point lead, said Pew Center director Andrew Kohut.

Indeed, races all over the country have tightened in recent days. Pollster John Zogby, who correctly predicted the Republican sweep in 1994, yesterday said Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois will be re-elected, a startling prediction that even Democratic pollsters dismissed as unrealistic.

For months, Republican Peter Fitzgerald has run ahead of Moseley-Braun, sometimes with double-digit leads. But a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll this weekend found the Democrat ahead, 44.6 percent to 41.9 percent.

"These last-minute trends are the bane of pollsters," Kohut said. "We don't know if they will continue like a wave or recede as an aberration."

Still, in an election where perhaps only 36 percent of eligible voters may show up at the polls, few expect Democrats to buck the historic trend of off-year elections and actually pick up seats, much less regain control of the House. Generic polls, which ask whether a voter will vote Republican or Democratic, may indicate trends, but they are imperfect predictors of actual outcomes, said Democratic poll taker Mark Mellman.

"Nowhere in the country is there a generic Republican or a generic Democrat on the ballot," he said.

A net loss of just 11 seats would cost the Republicans control of the House, but since the Civil War, the party holding the White House has gained House seats in a midterm election only once, in 1934. In this century, midterm elections on average have cost the president's party 32 House seats. For elections six years into a president's tenure, the average loss has been 38 House seats and six Senate seats.

Those are long odds to buck, Democrats say. Typically, according to Greenberg, Democrats must hold a 3-percentage-point lead in last-minute polls to overcome Republican advertising blitzes and turnout advantages.

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