The numbers are there. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that George Bush will be facing a Democratic Congress for the last two years of his term. Democrats winning the House is more likely than their winning the Senate, but the level of volatility and the enormity of the issues leave the pundits staring into crystal balls that are more cloudy than clear.
A month ago, we analyzed the traditional view of Congressional elections – that they are primarily driven by local issues — in the article “Voter '06 Congressional Election Intentions: Keep Your Tea Leaves Handy.” The question that everyone’s asking and no one can answer is will national and international issues be unusually powerful in determining voter behavior in November – and which party will benefit? (It needs to be noted that some of these interviews were conducted before the latest war in the Mideast.)
As Ben Benenson, editor of Congressional Quarterly Politics (CQ) noted:
“There hasn’t been an election with this degree of instability in many years…perhaps going back to 1980 with the Iran hostage going on, an energy crisis, stagflation, and runaway inflation. This kind of confluence of issues is very unusual, and if the Democrats have their way, Bush is going to be on the ballot symbolically, and the Republicans can’t avoid that.”
Scott Reed, a senior Republican strategist, in an interview, noted, “Iraq, immigration, Bush’s popularity, gas prices, the state of the economy—polls are showing a lot more anxiety about the direction the economy is going in, and all these are often barometers for midterm elections.”
Chuck Rund, president of Charlton Research, believes that the overall issue structure both for ’06 and the presidential election in ’08 are motivating people to take more interest in the elections. “The numbers say that this is an important election.”
So if non-local issues play a role, what are they, and which party can best capitalize on them?
America’s Image and Role in World Events
Polls show that Americans are more concerned than ever about their image in the world and more confused than ever about America’s rightful role in world events. “It’s something the American people are addressing,” Rund said, “even though they haven’t come to a consensus about it.”
America’s image as an issue is being driven by the growing mobility of Americans which can translate into relatively less interest in local issues as opposed to national or international ones. Ben Barnes, a Democratic insider once called the 51st Democratic Senator by former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, makes the point that Republicans are actually more mobile than Democrats, and, importantly, they travel abroad more often.
“I think they read more,” he said, “and they know more of what’s going on internationally. They know America has never been this unpopular, and that’s beginning to filter down to the general public as well.”
While the administration has clearly changed its approach to world events, seeking to rebuild damaged relations with other nations, there are still many voters who believe that the U.S. can “go it alone.”
In the 2008 presidential race, according to most observers, these image issues will be an important factor. But few are willing to predict their effect on the mid-term elections. Charles Franklin, Professor of Political Science at The University of Wisconsin, who runs one of the best polling analysis sites, Political Arithmetik, said, that “there’s quite a lot of data” that suggests that in many countries, including our allies, it’s not just the elites but the public who see America as a danger to world peace. He believes it’s grown beyond a sense of American Imperialism to the U.S. being a military danger.
While America's image abroad is unlikely to be a major determinant of voter behavior in November, it could prove important in select races. Moreover, no one knows how important the issue is on an unconscious level, which could influence voter behavior in subtle ways–the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back.
Midnight In America
“There’s a sense that it’s midnight in America,” said Scott Reed. Crashing consumer confidence polls couple with low growth rates, which means less willingness to invest, take risks, or look down the road, he noted, all are early warning signs. “That’s trouble for an incumbent party.”
Franklin goes so far as to say that, “In terms of the crisis in domestic policy, I don’t think it’s been this bad since 1932.”
The failure of Congress to address illegal immigration is simply another example of government’s inability to deal with critical issues. The problem in terms of trying to understand immigration's potential effect in the November elections is that it cuts both ways. It’s easier to see how the issue has hurt Republicans. The House and Senate are split between a House bill that’s seen as primarily punitive and a Senate bill that’s trying to be tough but fair. The issue is literally splitting the party in half.
Democrat Barnes believes the issue is going to hurt the Republicans in New Mexico, Texas, and perhaps Arizona.
“I think when the immigration radicals in the House who want to round up the 13 million illegal immigrants don’t really understand what they’re asking for. Do you understand what would happen if the House position prevailed, and we built the wall, and tried to round up 13 or 14 million illegal aliens? Plus there’s a group in the House that says they don’t want the children of illegal aliens who were born here to be citizens. You couldn’t’ hire enough people to round up and deport 13 million Hispanics. You’d need an entire army.”
Reed tends to agree because the GOP is coming across as “mean spirited,” which puts the issue for grabs. He also added Nevada, Illinois, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, and Colorado where the issue could make a difference. He added, however, that, while Hispanics tend to have a high turn out rate in presidential elections, much fewer of them vote in mid-terms.
On the other hand, it’s clear that many Republicans are appealing to their conservative base, who want a hard-line approach which could then get more of them to the polls. Immigration could play either way.
Rund, however, has an interesting take on illegal immigration that could significantly increase its important.
“Illegal immigration, although the issue is changing and evolving, is also a security issue in the minds of a lot of people.”
Security: The 800 Pound Elephant in the Room
When it looked like the war in Iraq was going well, Vice President Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and others were criss-crossing the country slamming the Democrats for wanting to “cut and run.” A couple of weeks later, when things weren’t looking quite as good, they disappeared. But with the war between Israel, Hezbollah, and Hamas and the linkage to Syria and Iran, the administration has once again begun to push national security issues.
Reed said recently that “Security always plays towards to the incumbent president’s party, even though the war in Israel seems like it’s out of everyone’s control back here. But I think at the end of the day, security is still a Republican issue hands down, and that can make a difference on the margins.”
National security was a major Republican strategic play in 2000 and 2004 and was used particularly effective against John Kerry who, ironically, couldn’t translate his military career into an effective national security approach. Barnes cites the attack against Vietnam Veteran and multiple amputee Congressman Max Clelland who lost his seat on the issue. “That’s unbelievable demagoguery, but it still works,” he said.
Three points are important to keep in mind regarding the salience of these issues with voters. First, there still has not been a lot of state-wide or Congressional district polling yet because it's too early. Second, and more important, too many of those polls fail to use methodologies that get below people's surface responses to determine what's really driving behavior at an unconscious level. Finally, while the media, special interest groups, and politicians pay a lot of attention to issues, there is solid data that American voting patterns are based more on other criteria…which we'll address in a subsequent article.
Next: The Bush Effect & The Republicans; Republican & Democratic Strategies