Deciding the fall elections

In a little over two months, voters will face their first national elections since last fall's terrorist attacks.

Some political observers feel that the attacks make predicting this year's midterm elections difficult to analyze. However, as we get closer to November, it appears voters will be largely deciding on candidates based on other issues that remain important to them and their families: the economy and education.

Candidates for Congress will undoubtedly design their campaign themes around those issues. Of course, any cataclysmic event, such as another attack on our nation's soil or possible US military action against Iraq, could throw out the window whatever insights polling numbers have yielded to political observers over the past several months.

This summer our firm, Research 2000, in conjunction with the National Journal's daily political newsletter, The Hotline, conducted polls in several states ranging from the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. The findings clearly illustrate two facts.

The first is that in a theoretical 2004 matchup for the presidency within these states, George W. Bush runs ahead of all Democratic favorites – with the exceptions of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts (58 percent support in his home state to Mr. Bush's 35 percent) and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (45 percent support in that state to Bush's 42 percent).

Second, these same voters, however, feel differently about Congress. For example, voters in Wisconsin gave President Bush a comfortable 14-point margin over Sen. Russ Feingold (52 percent to 38 percent). But when asked: "Would you prefer to see more Democrats or more Republicans elected to Congress this November?" voters were tied in their preference, at 44 percent.

When identifying the single most important issue in determining their vote for Congress, Badger State voters listed dealing with the economy, fighting terrorism, and improving education as the top three concerns. In fact, in each state surveyed, voters rated those issues as the top three.

As November nears, Democratic candidates will likely emphasize the need to improve the economy and education. Supporting the war against terrorism will also be important, but whether or not this includes a strike against Iraq has yet to play out. In some House races, candidates will attempt to tie their GOP opponents to the corporate scandals.

In the Republican corner, candidates will be aligning themselves with President Bush's high-approval numbers. They will remind voters that the president and the House-led GOP is responsible for the swift response and military success in the war against terror. They will try to convince voters that the same swift action on dealing with the economy and improving education can take place only by electing more Republicans to Congress – not Democrats who are simply obstructing the popular president's legislation.

Which side will be successful this November? Polling numbers and historical patterns may provide the best clues.

Little has changed since the 2000 election in terms of voter attitudes toward the two major political parties. For example, Democrats are still faring better among women, and Republicans better with men. Women voters rank the need to improve education and the economy as the two most important issues, while men rank fighting terrorism and reducing taxes as the their top two issues this fall. The racial gap among white and black voting preferences persists. A majority of white voters prefers to see more Republicans elected to Congress, while less than 5 percent of black voters feel the same.

While President Bush's overall ratings are high, his ratings on dealing with the economy and education are significantly lower. In some states, they are hovering around the 50 percent threshold of approval. Historically, high overall approval numbers for a sitting president do not translate into midterm election gains for the party controlling the White House. Indeed, the party controlling the White House generally loses seats in Congress during the midterm elections.

But there have been exceptions. During the 1962 midterm election under John F. Kennedy, the Democrats gained seats in Congress. Many feel that President Kennedy's handling of the cuban missile crisis was directly responsible for those gains. More recently, in the 1998 midterm elections, the Democrats gained seats in Congress in spite of President Clinton's forthcoming impeachment.

Yet if history is a true judge, President Bush, like his father 12 years earlier who also enjoyed high-approval ratings among voters during midterm elections, will see his party lose House seats in Congress. And the delicate Republican hold on that chamber will be lost.

• Del Ali, the president of Research 2000, has analyzed over 1,500 political races for media as well as for advocacy organizations and businesses.

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