Shorter Presidential Coattails?

Election 2002 is suddenly becoming a real nail-biter for the GOP's hopefuls. Here's a look at this year's volatile voting dynamics

By Richard S. Dunham

For months, Republican strategists have been exuding optimism about the GOP's chances of holding the U.S. House of Representatives and recapturing control of the Senate in the 2002 midterm elections. Why? The war on terrorism boosted President Bush's popularity into the stratosphere and highlighted issues that heavily favored Republicans, including fighting terrorism and conducting foreign policy.

Then there were three R's: redistricting (Republicans control a majority of state assemblies where congressional districts are being redrawn), recruiting (good lineup), and recovery (economic). All gave the GOP reason for cheer.

But the elephant's glee has begun to wane, along with the President's sustained run of superhigh ratings. An Apr. 5-8 Gallup Poll gave the Democrats a 50% to 43% edge in a generic congressional match-up. And while other polls show that the battle for Congress is much tighter, it's clear that even the most partisan Republicans believe they're in a tight race to hold ground on Nov. 5.

"It's going to come down to the last days in a few key districts and states," says Republican National Committeee pollster Matthew Dowd (see BW, 4/29/02, "Bush Starts Falling Back to Earth").

While the momentum could shift several more times between now and November, few dispute that the Democrats are the ones with "Big Mo" at the moment. Here's why:

The desire for divided government. Americans over the years have been ambivalent about whether the White House and Congress should be controlled by the same party or by opposing parties. In October, 2000, voters favored having the same party run both the executive and legislative branches by a 48% to 40% margin. Now, that split is 43% to 42%, according to Gallup. In key swing districts -- particularly in the suburbs -- the desire of many voters for divided governments could work against Republicans.

Another shift in the issues agenda. As Americans have shifted their focus from the war on terrorism to day-to-day issues, the Democrats have gained strength. They have a 23-point lead over Republicans when voters are asked which party will improve the health-care system, a 16-point edge on ensuring the long-term strength of Social Security, and a 16-point advantage on setting tax policies that are fair, according to Gallup.

Although Republicans have far bigger leads when it comes to terrorism and foreign policy, those issues seem to be receding in voters' minds. Admittedly, that could change if the U.S. faces another domestic terrorist attack or a ground war in Iraq.

The base solidifies. Republicans have been united behind the President and Hill GOP candidates since September 11. Indeed, Bush's approval rating among Republicans stands at 97%. But Democrats seem to be coalescing early -- an unprecedented display of unity for a historically fractured party. According to the most recent Ipsos-Reid polls, 79% of Democrats say they want a Democratic Congress, just five points behind the GOP number of 84%. Only 7% of each party's voters is likely to cross lines, according to Ipsos-Reid, and independents remain evenly divided. That's not good for Republicans, who remain outnumbered by Democrats.

Two recent shifts stand out: Young African Americans have swung strongly into the Democratic column since January, with party preference shifting to 82% to 11% Democratic from 63% to 20%. (Older black voters have overwhelmingly favored the Democrats all along.) What's more, in counties won narrowly by Vice-President Al Gore in 2000, the Dems have moved out to a 46% to 38% lead after trailing by 52% to 37% in January.

Midwestern blues. The GOP has seen a big drop in its support in the Midwest, where many key contests are shaping up, including Senate races in Minnesota, Missouri, and Iowa, and House battles in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Minnesota. Ipsos-Reid polls show a 14-point shift away from the Republicans since the beginning of the year.

A commanding GOP edge has now become a toss-up in an area crucial to the battle for control of Congress. What's more, Republicans are having trouble holding GOP governorships in the Midwest. Particularly vulnerable: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois.

Is demography destiny? While Bush remains popular with a number of key swing groups, that loyalty is no longer extending to congressional Republicans. According to Ipsos-Reid, Republicans have fallen 11 points among blue-collar voters, 11 points among single moms, and 10 points among college-educated women. The best news for Republicans? Latino voters remain in play. The Hispanic community appears to be a rare area in which Bush has coattails.

It's important to note that this is Bush's first midterm election, when Presidents historically suffer losses in Congress. But Bush could still surprise: The 2002 election cycle has been quite volatile so far. It looks as if predicting the outcome of Nov. 5 could keep pundits on their toes until the very end.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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