Why Voters May Keep The Government Divided

Ticket-splitters seek balance--and may hurt Democrats

Disappointed by Bob Dole's dreary Presidential campaign, Anne B. Pringle of Portland, Me., is casting a reluctant vote for President Clinton. But moderate Pringle, a local bank director and Portland's former Democratic mayor, is hesitant to hand both the White House and Congress to her own party. So, on Nov. 5, she plans to support Republican Senate candidate Susan Collins. "I'm not sure it's a good thing to give control back to the Democrats," the former Portland mayor says. "I'm tired of seeing our party defend all of these government programs."

Forget the talk of voters hating gridlock. Pringle exemplifies a new political trend: Voters who consciously choose to balance power between the parties. They want checks on the excesses of both camps, and they welcome the kind of compromises reached between President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress in recent months on everything from welfare reform to a minimum-wage hike. "They think they are getting the best of both worlds--a divided government that makes policy," says independent pollster John Zogby.

Divided government is nothing new. For decades, voters have split their ticket simply because they liked the personalities of different parties' candidates. Voters in the 1980s paired a Republican President and Democratic Congress, but analysts attribute that to satisfied voters who backed both parties' incumbents in what was, for many, an economic boom.

But in the restive '90s, voters are more skeptical of their leaders and many are deciding not to give either party too much power. Recent evidence? A Sept. 26-30 Harris Poll of 966 likely voters found that 55% of those polled believe it is good to have a President of one party and a Congress controlled by the other; 38% said they did not.

That could be bad news for Democrats hoping to ride Clinton's coattails. A Reuters-Zogby poll conducted Oct. 19-21 found only 66% of Clinton backers certain they'll vote for a Democrat for Congress. When GOP pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick asked voters which party's candidates they favored for Congress if Clinton is re-elected, the Republican preference shot up 9%. "The voters are exercising their own checks and balances," she concludes. "It's far more deliberate than it's been in the past."

Political scientists estimate that conscious ticket-splitters hover at about 10% of the electorate. But Washington & Lee University political scientist William F. Connelly deems this bloc "small but significant." The reason: They are swing voters who will decide many of 1996's closest races. "They can't abide Bob Dole," Connelly says, "but they want a check on Bill Clinton."

Such intentional ticket-splitting could have a big impact on close congressional races such as Senate and House contests in Maine. President Clinton is breezing to victory in the historically Republican state. But some voters fear renewed Democratic dominance in Washington. "We need to have a balance to prevent liberal Democrats from getting Congress back to business as usual," says H. Allen Ryan, president of NorthCenter Foodservice Corp. in Augusta. While a GOP Congress has pulled Clinton toward the center, Ryan, a strong supporter of freshman Republican Representative James B. Longley Jr., fears "an imbalance in organized labor's favor" in a Democratic Congress.

In Oregon, Republican Gordon Smith has targeted these voters in his race for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Mark O. Hatfield. Smith, running as a conservative, lost a Senate special election earlier this year. Now Smith, CEO of a frozen-vegetable company, has recast himself as a moderate who will work for bipartisan consensus. And while Clinton has a cushy lead in Oregon, Smith is running narrowly ahead of moderate Democrat Tom Bruggere, former CEO of a high-tech company. The same is true in Massachusetts, where Dole trails by 23 points, but Republican challenger William F. Weld is in a close race against Democratic Senator John F. Kerry.

BIPARTISAN BALANCE. Ticket-splitting could also aid Minnesota Republican Senate nominee Rudy Boschwitz, who is in striking distance of incumbent Democrat Paul D. Wellstone. Among Minnesota independents, Clinton leads Dole 47% to 17%, according to the Minnesota Poll. But Republican Boschwitz is the favorite of those same voters, 34% to 25%. Just 3% of Demo-crats support Dole, but 18% will cross over to vote for Boschwitz.

Who are these new ticket-splitters? The Reuters-Zogby survey finds most are on the East and West coasts. Moderates and independents are most likely to vote for divided government, although many right-leaning Democrats also are wary about handing the House over to liberal party leaders. And while men and women are about equally likely to opt for divided government, working mothers are far more likely to favor both Clinton and Hill Republicans.

Still, the desire for bipartisan balance in Washington is no call for a return to Gingrich-style gridlock. These swing voters are strong advocates of consensus politics. "There needs to be a reasoned approach to grapple with tough issues," says Maine's Pringle. If newly elected lawmakers heed her wishes, it could mean progress on restructuring social programs, and increased support for education and the environment.

GOP candidates are reluctant to seek the support of these Clinton backers openly, for fear of appearing disloyal to Dole. Still, in one of the political ironies of 1996, Dole's poor showing may provide the boost that propels some endangered Republicans to victory.

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