51/49 nation: big swings from tiny shifts

Minor switches, rather than a fundamental voter realignment, gave Republicans victory.

Tom Davis isn't normally the type of person who gloats. But the GOP congressman from northern Virginia can be blunt as a hammer – and at a day-after meeting with reporters in Washington's Capitol Club on Wednesday he took aim at erstwhile election opponents and banged down a few nails.

Mr. Davis, chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, said that this year too many Democrats sat around making fun of President Bush while he – meaning George W. – was out building national support. And Davis thanked Georgia's Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes for pushing through a redistricting plan that split the state's African-American vote, demoralized minority voters, and unintentionally resulted in big GOP gains.

"Governor Barnes was appropriately swept out of office" on the Republican tide, said Davis.

Ouch. But in private many Democrats were saying similarly harsh things about themselves. In a nation where voters are still split 50-50 between the two big parties, Republicans managed to bull their way to victory by a few percentage points. That gain means power – and perhaps power for some time. Early analyses show that Dems may be defending more vulnerable seats in 2004. Nor did this midterm exactly enhance the Democrats' chances of winning back the Oval Office two years hence.

"A huge amount of resources was poured into this election, which created a shift of a few people, which will have huge consequences," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa.

One thing the elections of 2002 were not about, apparently, was realignment. In that they were unlike 1994, when deep-seated frustration with the nation's direction swept the Republicans into power in the House and Rep. Newt Gingrich into the speaker's office. Nor were they even 1980, when the Reagan revolution brought the GOP to power in the Senate.

Both 1994 and 1980 were surprising, and involved changes in power in substantial numbers of seats. In 2002, by contrast, only a handful of House and Senate seats changed hands. Overall, 45 percent of voters reported pulling the lever for a GOP candidate, according to a poll by the Republican-leaning firm Public Opinion Strategies, while 39 percent voted for a Democrat. "This was a sliver of a change, not a massive sea change," says Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg.

The public remains cautious about a possible war with Iraq and has concerns about the direction of the economy and instances of corporate malfeasance, says Ms. Greenberg.

Indeed, Monitor interviews in relatively competitive electoral districts throughout the nation showed that many voters remain unsettled about the direction of the country. There was little "throw the bums out" passion among those interviewed; in fact, there was little partisan enthusiasm for either party.

The tenor Catawba, N.C.

Take Catawba, N.C., a town of 800 cradled in the northern backwaters of Lake Norman. On paper, the town is as evenly split between Republicans and Democrats as anywhere in the state. In practice, Catawba tends to be conservative with a small "c," with the town and surrounding county routinely supporting six-term House veteran Cass Ballenger (R).

Voters who braved a cold rain to cast ballots at the Old Catawba school cited issues from Social Security to the recent sniper attacks in Washington as factors in their choices. Many said they were turned off by what they judged negative campaigning in the North Carolina Senate race between Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Elizabeth Dole. Jobs, in a county with one of the highest jobless rates in the state, were a big concern. "My main concern this year is unemployment, and what our leaders are going to do about it," says Andrea Irwin, a home health nurse.

The rise of independent voting is a local trend, say long-time residents. Once a bastion of straight-ticket Republican voting, Catawba is increasingly producing split results at the polls. Indeed, much of the opposition to Mr. Ballenger comes from local business people, who oppose his support for the Republican party's free-trade principles. North Carolina leads the nation in manufacturing jobs lost to foreign trade. "We're worried about the economy and all these jobs going overseas," says Julie Mercer, a homemaker whose husband is a NASCAR mechanic.

But even if the election of 2002 was not about realignment, it shifted the gears of the US political system as surely as if the GOP had gained 10 Senators and 30 House seats.

Their were positive aspects of the vote for Democrats. They won governor's races in some key states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania. More than half the US population live in states with a Democratic chief executive. Democratic victories in such contests as the South Dakota and Arkansas Senate races allow the party to argue that it was local conditions, not a national trend, that drove election outcomes.

But this is America. Majority rules. The shift in national opinion about the parties may have been from 50-50 to 52-48, using Senate seats as a rough guide. Statistically-speaking, that's insignificant. But speaking of power, that's enough. "We started with dead even and we moved slightly off of dead even," says David Rohde, a congressional expert at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "And it matters a lot that we made that move."

But unlike 1994, the shift in power in Congress does not carry with it a clear mandate, for either legislatures or the White House, argues Mr. Rohde. Many issues were of clear importance in the vote, from the economy to the war on terrorism to Iraq. "The problem is voters care about all these issues – and not necessarily in the same direction," says Rohde.

Division in Davie

That was apparent in the south Florida town of Davie, a small Western-style town whose ranch-style buildings have earned it the nickname of Cowboy City. Even the local McDonald's looks like a saloon straight out of a John Wayne movie.

While surrounding Broward County is known as a haven for Democrats, political lines in Davie are about as evenly split as you can get. On election day, voters in Davie precincts cast 583 ballots for incumbent GOP governor Jeb Bush, and 649 for his (unsuccessful) Democratic challenger Bill McBride.

A number of interviewees said they did not vote the way they were registered. Michael Podabinski, a bricklayer and registered Republican, voted for the GOP in down-ballot races but chose Democrat McBride for governor. "I don't think that [Jeb] Bush did anything spectacular for us," said Mr. Podabinski. "I don't care for either candidate, so I picked the lesser of two evils."

Robert Salconie, a registered Independent, also voted for McBride, albeit for different reasons. "There was fraud in the last presidential election," he said.

By contrast, registered Independent Raul Sopelo decided to vote for the person who could get the most done in office. For him, that meant Jeb Bush.

"A governor with a brother in the White House has much more power to exercise his agenda," said Mr. Sopelo, who was accompanied at the polls by his two young daughters and Punchy, his miniature Doberman.

Linda Spiers, a healthcare worker, voted for Bush despite longstanding loyalty to Democrats. "No person in four years can make the progress that is expected," said Ms. Spiers from behind oversized sunglasses. "Bush has made an effort and overall is a good person."

The risk for Republicans

For Republicans the good news is that they are now in charge of the national levers of power. The bad news is also that they are in charge. They now have ownership of the nation's direction. If something goes badly – if the economy continues to sag, or the nation faces further setbacks in the terror war – voters could exact revenge in 2004, when Bush himself will likely be on the ticket.

"All that has to happen is for things to go badly... People are prepared to take out their frustrations on the party in power even when they don't think the party in power is responsible [for what went wrong]," says Rohde.

Still, Democrats will face their own built-in disadvantages in 2004. The party will have nine Senators up for reelection in states that tend to vote for Republicans. The GOP will have three seats up in states that tend the other way.

Furthermore, the Democratic national leadership corps is now depleted. The only national figure in the party untouched by this week's losses is arguably Al Gore, who lost last time around. Brookings Institution analyst Paul Light says the Democrats look like a tired, old party. The next election "could be a 1984 kind of scenario for Democrats, where you run the last of the old generation and go down in defeat and hope for 2008," says Mr. Light. Of course, 1984 was when Democrats ran Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan and lost badly. Perhaps it says something about the lack of younger leaders that Mondale was on the ballot again this year.

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