With President Clinton riding high in the polls, you'd expect Democratic activists to be ecstatic about the chances for recapturing Congress. Instead, party officials are sweating. Why? Explains David M. Katz, head of the Democrats' Pennsylvania campaign organization: "We fear that our base and swing voters see the election [as] over and won't come out."
That's less a concern for Clinton, who holds a fat lead over Republican Bob Dole, than for Democratic House and Senate candidates. They're locked in a tight battle for control of Capitol Hill and need every vote they can find. So the Democratic National Committee is stepping up such grassroots activities as door-to-door canvassing and targeted telephone solicitations to boost turnout among the faithful, especially Hispanics, blacks, and women. And the DNC is getting late help from Clinton, who has begun stumping for Hill candidates and has directed his campaign to raise $8 million for their election drives.
LOW INTEREST. There's evidence that interest among registered Democrats--who historically vote less often than Republicans--is low. According to a September survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 46% of Democrats had given little or no thought to the Presidential election, up from 26% in 1992. The ebbing of interest among Republicans is less dramatic: 39% weren't paying much attention vs. 29% in 1992.
To reenergize its core supporters, the DNC launched an early get-out-the-vote drive using a computer database that identifies registered voters most likely to respond to telephone appeals. The DNC is also directing a media blitz at Hispanics and blacks, hoping to boost their turnout from under 55% in '92 to over 60%. The party plans to spend $1 million on TV, radio, and print ads in Hispanic media outlets alone, up from $150,000 four years ago. A major theme: The GOP Congress wants to cut benefits to legal immigrants and let states deny education to children of illegal workers.
To spur turnout among blacks, the Democrats' most loyal constituency, the DNC is stressing Clinton's support for affirmative action, a higher minimum wage, and anticrime measures. That may persuade more blacks to vote for the President, but many traditionally go home without voting in their congressional race. "We have a lot of work to do to get people to vote down the ticket," concedes Dem-ocratic pollster Ron Lester. So African-American activists will emphasize that Democratic recapture of the House would catapult blacks to powerful committee chairmanships: New York's Charles B. Rangel at Ways & Means, Michigan's John Conyers Jr. at Judiciary, California's Ronald V. Dellums at National Security, and Missouri's William L. Clay at Economic & Educational Opportunities.
Another big target will be the 14 million working women without college degrees who voted in '92 but stayed home in 1994. By nearly 2 to 1, they back Clinton over Dole and prefer a Democratic Congress, according to polls. "When they came out in droves in 1992, we won, and when they stayed home in droves in 1994, we lost," says Mary Beth Cahill, executive director of Emily's List, a fund-raising group for Democratic women candidates that is spending $3 million to reach these "drop off" voters. "Turnout is critical."
Of course, Republicans have their own turnout worries: With Dole's chances for victory looking grim, GOP foot soldiers may stay home. But if the Democratic base doesn't show up at the polls for the opposite reason--Clinton appears a sure winner--Republicans will yet cling to power in Congress.