One year out, parties brace for duel of equals

Democrats and the GOP, as evenly matched as they've been this century,vie for the heart of disengaged voters.

Twelve months before the first election of the 2000s, the landscape of US politics features an electorate that is remarkably satis-fied with the direction of the nation, and two major parties that are as equally matched as they have ever been in the past 100 years.

That means that the campaign season to come could be a frenetic one, as Republicans and Democrats search for issues and personalities that will appeal to disengaged voters. At stake is all the power Washington has to offer.

"For a change, we don't have one party that's an obvious majority party," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. "That means elections can actually swing control of government."

In the post-World War II era, the theme of national elections has often been "change," note scholars. What varies is the type and degree of change voters want.

The early 1990s was arguably the era of the angry voter. Stereotypically white, male, and lower-middle class, the angry voter wanted a measure of protection from the turmoil sweeping through the American industrial economy. Angry voters helped propel Ross Perot to 18 percent of the vote in 1992. They contributed to the return of a Democrat to the White House after 12 years of GOP chief executives. Two years later, anger - plus the rise of the GOP in the South - broke the Democrats' long hold on the House of Representatives.

What a difference good times make. The economic expansion of the 1990s has generated record high levels of consumer confidence, spilling over into good feelings about many aspects of politics.

Approval ratings rise

President Clinton - whose job approval remained high even during impeachment - is not the only politician to benefit from this phenomenon. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that the job ratings of presidents long out of office have risen. Positive impressions of Jimmy Carter gained 24 points when compared to a similar 1994 survey. Gerald Ford was up 21 points, and Ronald Reagan, 19.

Voters have similarly become more tolerant of immigration and more satisfied with the US environmental protections, says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

But one side effect of the rise of the satisfied electorate may be a flight from interest in politics. "The campaign has yet to take shape because people, for one of the few times in their adult lives, think they can focus on other things," says Ms. Bowman.

This lack of interest can be seen in the fact that no one issue, or group of issues, has emerged as an overarching concern to voters.

Voters continue to think that "issues," generically, are important. A recent Pew research poll found that 67 percent of respondents say the media should focus on candidates' stands. Yet they disagree on what those issues should be, specifically. Seventeen percent of respondents rated Social Security/Medicare as the most important item, 16 percent picked the economy, and 15 percent chose education.

It's early yet, and a dominant national question could yet emerge before voters go to the polls next fall. But in the absence of burning national questions, voter perceptions of a candidate's character may prove decisive.

"Right now what seems to stand out are personality factors," says Greg Flemming, survey director for The Pew Research Center.

Some analysts believe that means US voters are now looking for someone to address the issue of moral drift amid prosperity, as a reaction to their perception of laxness during the Clinton years. Some 82 percent of respondents to a Pew poll judged it very important to learn about a candidates' reputation for honesty, for instance.

The desire for moral leadership could help explain the two most surprising developments of the presidential campaign so far - the relative weakness of Vice President Al Gore, and the rise of Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. Bill Bradley wins higher marks from the voters for his personality and perceived leadership ability than Mr. Gore does. Senator McCain's maverick qualities have made him seem forceful to voters, so far.

"Most Americans don't know that much about nominees, though some are perceived as 'leaders,' " says Mr. Flemming.

Balance between the parties

Meanwhile, the battle lines between the two major parties have become more settled after a period of realignment.

The 1900s began with Republicans ascendent in the era of William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. The Depression - and the towering personality of Franklin Delano Roosevelt - ended that era and delivered Washington into the hands of Democrats for a generation.

After World War II, Democrats maintained their grip on Congress, though presidential elections became more competitive. A significant chunk of the Democrat majority consisted of conservative Southerners, however. That support has moved to the GOP in the past 20 years, returning the parties to more or less even ground on the legislative front for perhaps the first time since the late 1800s.

"That means that in 2000 you have a very strong likelihood that whoever wins the presidency also wins the House," says Professor. Jacobson.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.