Election '98: How Did We Get It Wrong?

Jim Nicholson is a good soldier. For hours on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 3, this GOP national chairman had been explaining as best he could to various TV audiences why the Republicans hadn't fared better in that day's big elections. As the night drew on and the news for Republicans became bleaker and bleaker, Mr. Nicholson couldn't possibly have been enjoying himself.

And then, the next morning after having only a couple of hours of sleep, here was Nicholson at a Monitor breakfast, looking a bit subdued and depressed, but still keeping his smile as he endured an hour's questioning that always kept him on the defensive. The questions were asked civilly. But we had to ask this Republican leader how and why his party had gone down to defeat - and how much he, himself, was responsible for that outcome. And it is impossible to ask such questions in a gentle way.

Nicholson, a West Point graduate who served with distinction in the Vietnam War, held his ground well. While acknowledging there had been surprising losses for his side, he pointed out that the Republicans still controlled both houses of Congress, still possessed a solid majority of governorships, and had racked up some significant victories along the way.

But he simply had no satisfying answers to questions like these: "Where was the voter outrage against Clinton's personal conduct that was supposed to surface in this election - and which some GOP TV ads had sought to stir up?" "Hadn't these ads done much to energize the black vote?" And "Would there be changes now in party leadership?" He obviously had no idea that Newt Gingrich was about to step down.

One likely GOP presidential candidate, Steve Forbes, is obviously quite unhappy with the way the Republicans conducted their campaign. He had an aide standing by the entrance to our breakfast room passing out a paper addressed to "Members of Congress and conservative leaders" and leading off with an accusation: "No message is no way to win elections."

Nicholson, responding to Mr. Forbes' charge, insisted there had been a Republican message in this election, including cutting taxes, lessening government, improving education, and saving Social Security. But he said he was well aware the message had not, in many instances, been heard by the voters.

Nicholson got an "A" for his performance under fire. But he really didn't tell us much. He seemed to be a bit in shock. He said more than once that he'd have to "look further into that" before he could explain what happened in this or that contest.

And he definitely didn't - and probably couldn't - add anything to clarify the big question: How was it that we - the politicians and the press - got it all wrong and thus set up an anticipation of a GOP triumph that somehow turned a near standoff in the election results into the "decisive victory" for the Democrats?

Certainly, history pointed us toward expecting Republican gains. But it was the Republican politicians who spread this optimism. It was Mr. Gingrich, himself, who once told us over breakfast that he thought the Republicans could pick up 40 seats in the House.

To be sure, GOP optimism was curbed as the election neared. But this belief that the Republicans would do well - if only marginally - still prevailed among most observers. Many political writers, like myself, thought that voter outrage over Clinton's conduct would surface in some contests. It didn't. And Nicholson couldn't tell us why it didn't. Must I conclude, as many readers tell me I should, that most Americans want to forget Clinton's adultery and lying under oath and just "move on"?

No, I don't think the election told us that. Instead, I am persuaded that election-day exit polls put together by a consortium formed by ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, NBC News, and the Associated Press tell us, better than the election itself, what people think about Clinton. These actual voters gave the president a 54 percent approval rating for the way he is handling his job and then gave him a 61 percent "unfavorable" opinion rating for "Bill Clinton as a person."

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