The body politic may edge to the left


WASHINGTON, D.C. - If only they had as much imagination as gamblers, politicians here could be singing the lament of Harry the Horse and Nicely Nicely in "Guys and Dolls": "Where's the action? Where's the game? Gotta have the game or we'll die from shame."

There's supposed to be a game going on here. The big one. But so far at least (these things can always change) it isn't much of a contest. It isn't just that the Clinton team is way out in front. It's that the Dole team doesn't seem to have read its playbook. So with the presidential race barely a fit topic for speculation, speculation has found a new topic, more intriguing and in the long run perhaps more important: What will happen to the Congress?

The importance is obvious. This was the first Republican Congress in 40 years. From welfare to the budget to the fate of public lands in the West, it did some things and tried to do many more which its Democratic predecessors never considered. If Republicans can keep the majority in the face of a top-of-the-ticket loss, they might be running the joint for the next 20 years.

This would not be an inconsequential development. We are not discussing an election. We are discussing 468 elections, all 435 House seats (about 120 of which are competitive) and 33 Senate seats. In many of them, parochial issues and the strength of individual candidates will mean more than nationwide trends.

"All politics," famously declared the late Tip O'Neill, "is local." But even this revered rule is an imperfect guide. In 1994, Republicans successfully "nationalized" the congressional elections, inspiring Charles Cook to amend O'Neill as follows: "All politics is local, except when it isn't."

Cook runs something called the Cook Political Report, and he's as good as anyone when it comes to figuring out congressional elections, because he knows he doesn't know. When last seen, he thought it likely, though not certain, that the Republicans would maintain slim majorities in both houses.

Like many other analysts, Cook relies in part on the "generic party preference" question in polling. That's the one that asks respondents whether they're inclined to vote for a Democrat or a Republican in congressional races. It has a pretty good historical track record in predicting results. But people don't vote for a generic candidate. They vote for a living, breathing person they see on television.

Flawed or not, this poll question offers scant comfort to anyone anxious to find out whether Newt Gingrich will keep his gavel. Cook's rule of thumb is that if one party has a 6- to 7-point lead, it's likely to kick butt. The problem is that depending on which poll you read, the Democratic lead is somewhere between six points and almost nothing. So go figure. Besides, until a week or so before the election, those polls only measure public opinion in general, not the opinion of those who will actually vote. Whereupon we come to the subject political analysts are often loath to discuss, though its importance can hardly be exaggerated.

The subject is voter turnout. Here in America, where democracy was created, most people don't bother with it. A bare majority of us vote in presidential elections; far fewer in the mid-term contests. How bad is turnout? The 38.8 percent in 1994 was good for a mid-year, up from 36.5 in 1990. But far below the 55.24 percent in 1992, which means that the electorate which put Newt Gingrich in power was about 30 million people smaller than the one which put Bill Clinton in power, and presumably about that much smaller than the one expected to keep him there.

Now, here's where it gets interesting, and where I will reveal a trade secret. It isn't just how many people voted in 1992 and stayed home in 1994. It's also who they were. Oversimplifying slightly, they were moderates, even moderate liberals. They were people who didn't hate Bill Clinton but were hardly inspired by him, even if they had voted for him.

Conservatives, on the other hand, were inspired by Clinton. Negatively. Especially in the South and the West, they were furious about gays and guns. They came out to vote Republican. That explains why, according to exit polls, the 1994 electorate was even richer, more educated and more conservative than off-year electorates usually are.

But to say this is to step on one of the recurring "big stories" political reporters love to write - the ideological transformation of the body politic. It's much more fun to describe a history-making change than to point out that one party picked up scores of seats simply because a lot of casual citizens decided to stay home on Election Day. But that's often the case.

Take the biggest of the recent congressional wipeouts, the post-Watergate elections of 1974 when Republicans got creamed. Did millions of Republicans who gave Richard Nixon his 1972 landslide vote Democratic two years later? Well, a few did. But more expressed their dismay by not going to the polls. These common-sense qualifications do not render the results meaningless. The fact that millions of conservatives who often don't bother with mid-term elections were inspired to turn out in 1994, and that millions of moderates who often do vote were inspired to take a nap, was quite meaningful indeed.

It meant that conservatism was full of energy and that Bill Clinton was in trouble. It didn't mean that the body politic had made a quantum leap to the right. This body politic does not leap.

But it does move, and this year it is likely to move part of the way back toward where it was. Most of the 30 million people who didn't vote in 1994 will vote this time. As of now, most of them are likely to vote for Clinton, and a funny thing happens to casual voters when they come out to vote for president. Many of them, as long as they're standing in the voting booth, pull the lever (or push the pin) for other candidates in the president's party.

Furthermore, many GOP voters of 1994 were not conservative as much as they were annoyed. They were voting "no" on Clinton and on Congress, not "yes" to Gingrich and his Contract with America, about which they knew nothing. They are not especially happy with what they got, and guess what they're going to do now? Vote "no" again.

Republicans know this. Some of them are already arguing that they had best be re-elected to protect the public from the excesses of a second Clinton term. There are analysts who point to polls showing that most Americans like divided government and think this will work.

Barney Frank, the liberal Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, disagrees. "If the big story of the last two weeks is whether Newt Gingrich stays as speaker, I'll be delighted," Frank said. "That's every Democratic challenger's dream."

Dreams don't win elections. Numbers do. The Democrats need a net gain of three Senate seats (assuming Gore is still vice president to break tie votes) and 19 in the House. They'll probably pick up 19 or more House seats in the North, the Midwest and the West. But they may lose some in the South.

In the West, four Republicans in Washington (Rick White, Linda Smith, George Nethercutt and Randy Tate) are considered vulnerable. So are Jim Bunn in Oregon, John Ensign in Nevada, Helen Chenoweth in Idaho and Frank Riggs in California. On the face of it, one would have to think that the Utah seat being surrendered by Enid Greene Waldholtz is competitive. A few Western Democrats barely snuck through in 1994, and will face tough fights, but if they managed to win in the face of the general Republican surge then, they should be safe now.

So what will happen? Well, as I just explained, nobody knows. But I won't chicken out, so here goes: No one has coat-tails any more, but if Clinton wins by 10 percentage points or more, the Democrats will end up with narrow majorities in both houses.

Jon Margolis writes regularly about national politics for High Country News.

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