Democrats likely to tighten grip on House

THE 1986 elections for the United States House of Representatives are essentially over. The Democrats won. There were few surprises. Democrats will maintain a huge majority in the House. They will continue to appoint the committee chairmen, elect the Speaker, and give President Reagan a hard time on his favorite programs. Although voters don't go to the polls until Nov. 4, political experts confidently say the Democrats' 253-to-182 margin in the House will grow in the next Congress by another 10 to 20 seats.

Political insiders say that of the 435 House races across the country, as few as 50 are really close. It's all so patent, so cut and dried, that Martin D. Franks, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, calls this year's elections ``boring.''

Yet experts ask: Should it be this way? Is something wrong with the way Americans elect their congressmen? Why is there so little competition, so little excitement, to turn out the voters in races for the Congress?

Democrats have been in command ever since 1955, when they regained a majority in the House. Furthermore, it now appears that Democratic control could extend far into the future.

Mr. Franks says confidently, ``The battle for the House, for the 1980s, is over. Republicans are not going to get control in this decade, and probably not in this century.''

That kind of cockiness may shock many Americans, who think elections aren't over until the votes are counted. Nor do Republican leaders agree that the outlook is that gloomy. They cling to the hope of major gains in the House in 1988, and possible GOP control in the early 1990s.

The long stretch of one-party rule, however, causes concern among a number of experts. Despite intense struggles between the parties for the White House and the Senate, elections for the House have become less and less responsive to the changing tides of American political opinion. Through a series of Presidents that have ranged from Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan to John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter, House Democrats remained in charge.

Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute in Claremont, Calif., and an authority on legislative districting, says the current situation isn't healthy. He argues that one-party control is built on the wrong foundation.

First, it reflects the power of incumbents, who use special-interest money and other advantages of their positions to remain in office.

Only about 8 percent of House incumbents are ever beaten in any given election. In 1984, only 14 Republicans managed to defeat incumbent Democrats; and they succeeded only by spending, on average, more than $650,000, and campaigning for more than a year.

Second, there is gerrymandering, which Dr. Heslop calls ``the worst form of political corruption'' in America today. Gerrymandering involves the manipulation of district lines to give special advantage to one of the parties. The problem is getting worse; by using computers, politicians can map gerrymander lines that are virtually foolproof.

Heslop estimates that because of gerrymandering, Democrats are able to enlarge their margins in the House artificially by about 50 percent. Further, unless something is done, gerrymandering could improperly prolong Democratic control for the rest of this century, he says.

Heslop suggests this corruption is sending a message to American voters. It is telling them: ``What is the point of a political system in which the odds are so stacked that the voter doesn't have a fair chance to change political outcomes? That's exactly what's happening.

``We're all very concerned about voter apathy. Well, if the voter is a rational being, there's no particular reason for him to be involved in most of the congressional and state legislative elections in this country.''

Heslop is particularly chagrined by the situation in California. Democrats there got less than half the votes for Congress in 1984, but with gerrymandering got 60 percent of the House seats. The state Legislature has also been gerrymandered to keep Democrats in power.

Heslop says, ``The fact of the matter is, there is less turnover in California than in most of the regimes that we indict as nondemocratic.''

His concern is echoed by a number of judges, legislators, and political scientists. The US Supreme Court may take up a case involving California gerrymandering early next year. Yet even without any help on the gerrymandering problem (which hurts Republicans far more than Democrats), Republicans say that they see at least a glimmer of hope in the battle for control of the House.

Joseph R. Gaylord, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, says the GOP is far stronger in the House than 10 or 20 years ago, when it dropped to only about 140 seats. Even with the loss of more than 10 seats this year, it would still be close to 170 -- a significant increase in the party's ``base'' strength from that 140-seat low.

Mr. Gaylord also notes a little-known fact about the 1984 elections: ``If 216,000 people in 36 districts had switched their votes to Republicans, we would now have 218 seats, and Democrats would have 217.''

Those 216,000 votes represents less than 0.03 percent of total congressional vote in the country in 1984, Gaylord says.

Such mathematical games do not win elections -- but they give GOP strategists reason to hope that they are within striking distance of House control, perhaps getting close as early as 1988.

Republicans feel they've already won a major part of their struggle for control of the House by blunting the effects of ``the six-year itch'' this year.

During this century, in the sixth year of a presidential term, the average loss by the party that controls the White House has been 48 seats. Yet this year, GOP losses aren't expected to be more than one-third of that amount.

Gaylord says: ``We have survived the disaster election. . . . I don't think that's small potatoes. And I think there is a tremendous opportunity going into the 1988 election to make fairly substantial gains, because by its very nature 1988 will be more polarized [because of the presidential race].''

One reason the GOP can be so upbeat is that there is no overriding issue, like an economic downturn, that threatens the party's prospects.

In 1982 a deep recession, with unemployment over 10 percent, ravaged Republican election hopes. But this year, says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, the elections have no national definition. Local issues are paramount.

Rather than issues, the key word in 1986, says Mr. Hart, is ``character.''

``Voters are looking at the individual . . . and they're saying: `I want to understand what this person is about.' If there's a message in '86, what the voters are saying is, `Care about me, don't forget about me, don't sell me out.' In the past it's been said, `The medium is the message.' This year, the messenger is the message.''

Getting good candidates is 80 percent of winning elections, a GOP strategist says.

Issues, however, do make a difference. If Republicans lose as many as 15 or 20 seats this fall, the greatest setbacks are likely to be in the Midwest farm belt, because of the depression in agriculture. Likewise, economic issues could weigh heavily on both parties in the oil patch -- Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma -- and in the timber and mining states of the West.

But Richard Wirthlin, a leading Republican pollster, notes that when voters are asked their greatest concern about the country, no issue is named by more than 14 percent of the people. The top issues include illegal drugs (14 percent), unemployment (12 percent), and war and peace (9 percent), Dr. Wirthlin says.

``It is clear that 1986 is not going to be a one-issue campaign like 1982, when one-third mentioned unemployment,'' Wirthlin says, adding that voters will ask two key questions this year:

Do I believe that Republicans in Congress have made a difference in the past? If voters answer ``yes,'' it could stave off major losses.

Which of the two parties do I believe can handle problems that I personally feel are of greatest concern?

At present, 36 percent of US voters say Democrats are ``more qualified'' to deal with major problems than Republicans; 33 percent say the Republicans; 21 percent see no difference; and 10 percent are undecided, a new Gallup poll finds.

In January, the GOP led on that question, 33 to 28. So the Republicans haven't lost ground, but the Democrats have picked up strength. There's other good news for Democrats as well. Gallup finds that registered voters pick Democratic candidates over Republicans in the current congressional races by 54 to 40. In January, the margin was only 49 to 43.

At the same time, the GOP can find encouragement from one development that began in 1980: the growing number of voters who consider themselves Republicans.

Gallup shows the GOP with support from 32 percent of the voters, the Democrats with 39 percent. The rest are considered independents. At its nadir, the GOP sank to 22 percent during the Watergate crisis, and again to 22 percent in 1979, the year before Ronald Reagan rode onto the scene. At that time, Democrats went as high as 45 percent, a 2-to-1 advantage.

The growth of GOP strength has come from two vital areas: former Democrats, such as Northern ethnic voters and Southern whites; and the young. Well over 60 percent of young voters supported President Reagan in 1984, and many of those voters appear to be staying with the GOP. Says Wirthlin of the youth group: ``They don't vote as often, nor are their allegiances as deep. The key is getting them to vote twice for the GOP, for once they do, they usually stick.''

This could be the year many young voters cast that second Republican vote, and that could bode well for the Grand Old Party. For Democrats, the loss of young voters could be the greatest long-term concern, and the most significant threat to the party's firm control of the House for the rest of this century.

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