WASHINGTON — It is one of the oldest tricks in the political spinmeister's repertoire: Pump up or deflate election expectations before the vote. After the tally, use the artificially calculated numbers to claim victory, or even a mandate.
This election season is providing lots of opportunity for both sides to engage in a round of predictions-meet-politics:
* "History tells us we should lose 25 to 30 [House] seats," says Melissa Ratcliff, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee.
* "The off-year standard is [a loss of] between 15 and 30 [seats]. A rout for us would be anything over 35 in the House," says Nikki Heidepriem, a Democratic political consultant in Washington.
* "We're looking for 14" in the House, says Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, now a GOP strategist.
Conventional wisdom holds that the party controlling the White House typically loses seats during the middle point of the president's second term. But just how many seats the Democrats lose Nov. 3 will be watched even more closely this year, as analysts look for any sign of a backlash against the president. Because this year's vote margin will likely help shape the scope and intensity of impeachment proceedings, the expectation game is in high gear.
"High-balling and low-balling is a fine art," explains William Lunch, a political scientist at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "If [Democrats] say they are expecting [to lose] 26, they are expecting five," he chuckles.
Some political experts say the expectation game has picked up this decade. "There are so many people out there making a living off politics and do it by staking out some kind of territory," says Earl Black, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston.
The most recent example of this came in the days before the House vote for impeachment proceedings earlier this month. Democratic strategists suggested that the number of defectors expected to vote for an inquiry might be as high as 60. When the number of Democrats voting for the measure ended up being 31, it seemed like a Democratic victory.
"The media routinely get sucked into the expectation game because they report on what is being said," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
True mandates in national elections are more rare than common. President Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election was seen as a mandate for civil rights. And more recently, Republicans claimed a mandate after President Reagan's margin of victory exceeded expectations by nearly 10 percent in 1980.
Such a clean mandate is not expected this election. But in an attempt to get one, the GOP this week kicked off a multimillion-dollar campaign aimed at focusing attention on the president's character.
IF Republicans make substantial gains, "it would give new energy and new momentum to the [impeachment] investigation," says historian Arthur Schlesinger.
Republicans hope that the $10 million campaign, which includes TV ads, will win them 30 House seats. "We just decided this was part of wrapping up the campaign," says Rep. John Linder of Georgia, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "[Mr. Clinton] is the personification of everything we are running against."
But Democrats yesterday responded to the ads and launched a counteroffensive of their own. "Attacking the president and investigating the president have become an obsession with the Republicans," said Vice President Gore. "And the real damage is not done to the president, it's done to Americans."