Great Expectations

Douglas Koopman

February 1, 2002

The beginning of every even-numbered year brings a short season of spin by the major political parties about the upcoming fall national elections. Both Republican and Democratic leaders have laid out their great expectations about how the 2002 elections will break the essential tie in national party power. But it may be the higher expectations of the public that shapes the elections in November.

President Bush’s chief political advisor Karl Rove has one view of how Republicans can win big. In the Republican National Committee winter meetings in mid-January, Rove suggested that Republicans should run on the message that they are the party who can be trusted to successfully fight the war against terrorism. Running on the coattails of the President’s success in response to September 11, Rove argued that House and Senate Republicans are sure to recapture the Senate and expand their House majority.

The only problem with this strategy is that presidential coats no longer have tails, even in presidential election years. And off-year congressional elections are even further removed from national issues and the man in the White House. Even disgraced Bill Clinton saw his party win congressional seats in 1998. So the coattails strategy, by itself, is very unlikely to succeed. The only argument in its favor, and it is a slim one, is that because George W. Bush had no 2000 coattails there are no Bush coattail seats to lose. And maybe a few new Bush sympathizers will express their gratitude to him by pulling the GOP lever this fall. But that is a mighty slim reed upon which to build a strategy.

Democrats have their own great expectations for this fall. They are trying to put a face on today’s economic anxiety by making poster children of Republicans tied to collapsed energy giant Enron, starting with President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. But the problem here is that the collapsing Enron political influence tent was a big one, and many Democrats such as Joe Lieberman of Connecticut are still scrambling out from under its canvas. Others are still stuck inside. With these Democratic ties to Enron, and other business failures such as Global Crossing are snaring others in the party, including Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe, the smear campaign could backfire.

The attack tack might be even more difficult because of changes in public attitudes and the quirks of the congressional agenda. Findings from several recent polls point out the dangers. First, in an important post-September 11 survey, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam found heightened public interest in and trust of government. Twenty-nine percent of the Putnam poll respondents claimed an increased interest in politics, twice the percentage claiming declines. And fifty-one percent said their trust in government grew, seven times the number with falling trust.

Greater public interest in politics means greater public attention. And a more attentive public worried about war and jobs is less likely to countenance politics-as-usual finger pointing and character assassination, the essential Democratic strategy for 2002.

And while government trust usually indicates a Democratic advantage, some polls suggest this is becoming a GOP advantage. An ABC news poll reported that now the public trusts Republicans more on the economy, education, and the campaign against terrorism—top issues for the fall. And on the direct question of congressional voting preference, Republicans led Democrats by seven percentage points—the largest advantage in more than twenty years.

What does greater attention to politics and greater trust of Republicans mean? Probably, it cancels out the Republican worries of a mid-term election with a GOP president and an uncertain economy. Key Senate battles are in the Democratic states of Minnesota, South Dakota, and Missouri and Republican ones of North Carolina and New Hampshire. So trade policy in agriculture and the general farm economy are likely to be more important than usual this year. In the House, the Democrats need to gain a half-dozen seats or more, out of approximately thirty competitive races. That is doable, but the state-by-state results of redistricting so far look pretty good for Republicans.

The safest bet is that control of the House and Senate will boil down to hand-to-hand combat in a few key districts and a few key states. How much money endangered candidates raise will be important—’but from whom they raise it, and what they say with it, will also be critical. More people will be paying attention, and more of them distrust the Democrats than ever before. What that means is difficult to predict.

Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.