Posted on November 07, 1994 in Washington Watch

President Clinton’s poll ratings are up, and incumbent Democratic Senators and Congressmen are fighting to save their seats, but it may not be enough to prevent a Republican takeover of Congress.

The electorate is either angry or alienated, and both spell trouble for incumbents, the majority of whom are Democrats. Yet this anger and alienation are, in large measure, the product of these incumbent politicians. After years of running negative attack campaigns, voters no longer trust or respect those who run for office. Watching any amount of television this election season has made it easy to understand why.

American television is a commercial venture, with television programs interrupted every 15 minutes for two to three minutes of advertisements which run consecutively, each being 30 or 60 seconds in length. These ads are used to sell cars, beer, toothpaste, detergent or a variety of other products or services. It is the advertisers who sponsor the programs.

During the election season, those same advertising slots are bought by political candidates for the same fees that would be paid by the product advertisements they displace.

During the past two weeks, these political ads have taken up all of the available commercial time slots, and television has become a constant forum for political campaign messages. Not only has the quantity of these political buys been higher than usual, but the use of negative ads is up as well.

Viewers in New York, for example, are first exposed to a negative ad for Republican gubernatorial candidate George Pataki on incumbent Democrat Mario Cuomo for paroling a prisoner who repeated his crime, only to be confronted by a Cuomo attack ad against Pataki which accuses the Republican of failing to pay taxes to the state. In Virginia, Democratic incumbent senator Chuck Robb and Republican challenger Oliver North are running competing negative ads, each one accusing the other of being a liar. The same pattern is also evident in California between Democratic Senate incumbent Dianne Feinstein and Republican challenger Michael Huffington.

The effects of all this negative advertising on voters is numbing. One commentator recently noted that if fast-food restaurants McDonalds or Burger King acted this way (that is, promoted themselves by attacking the integrity and quality of the other), people would avoid both restaurants because they would lose faith in both.

In effect, this is precisely what has happened in U.S. politics. Two-thirds of the voting public most probably will not vote in this election, and those who do will either be ideologically driven (from either the left or the right) or voting out of anger at the incumbents or fear of a candidate they dislike being elected office.

It’s not just Clinton’s popularity that has become an issue in U.S. politics – it’s the public trust in government itself. While the President has rebounded somewhat now has a net positive approval rating of 49% to 45%, Congress fares much worse in the public eye. The same poll that found a positive approval rating for Clinton showed that the public approval rating of Congress is a low 20%, with a disapproval rating of 73%.

When asked whether or not members of Congress ought to be reelected, the public responds with 11% yes and 82% no. Even when asked about their own members of Congress, who usually fare much better in the eyes of their constituents than the Congress as a whole, the response of still only 37% favoring reelection with 53% opposing.

It is telling that Democratic incumbents who were dragged down in the polls by their association with Clinton, are not rising in popularity along with their President. In many cases, this is because the incumbents in question have put so much distance between themselves and Clinton that they cannot now (without looking extremely hypocritical) take credit for Clinton’s achievements. Of course, the very fact that they are incumbent politicians is also a component of the weight that keeps them from rising in the polls, because it ties them in the public’s mind to a very strong negative sentiment.

This negative climate, created in part through negative ads for electoral reasons, has produced a hurdle for governing which the President and his party are finding difficult to overcome. Despite positive economic indicators, the public still feels by a 2-1 margin that the country is in an economic downturn, and the same majority feels that the U.S. economy “is on the wrong track” and not headed toward recovery. Thus, the momentum that Clinton traditionally would have enjoyed for several quarters of good economic news, and which would have in turn helped to pass his other programs like health care and welfare reform, has been denied him altogether.

Yet despite these negative indicators, Clinton is fighting hard through non-stop campaign visits designed to save his Democratic majority in the House and Senate. Following his upsurge in the polls, some Democratic candidates are now welcoming the President’s support; and Democratic gains are now especially evident in New York, California and Virginia. New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo and California’s Senator Dianne Feinstein, New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg and Massachusetts’ Ted Kennedy are all doing much better in their states in the week before the election than they were doing even two weeks ago. In other races, particularly in the open seat races (created by the retirement of Democratic Senators), where only two weeks ago the Republicans seemed assured of victory, the margins have closed and those elections (in Oklahoma and Michigan) are too close to call.

But the Democrats still face a serious threat of losing control of the Senate. There are four other open Senate seats (resulting from Democratic retirements) in Maine, Arizona, Tennessee and Ohio which Republicans will almost certainly win, and three incumbent Democrats (Tennessee’s other Senator Jim Sasser, Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania and Virginia’s Senator Chuck Robb) whose races are too close to call.

There are no certainties in most of these outcomes, but it is clear thus far that the anti-incumbent mood among voters will have a negative impact on the Democratic party. Of the 16 Senate races that are too close to call, Democrats will almost certainly lose no fewer than four, and could possible win back one or two from the Republicans. Four other Senate races (in California, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee) will probably stay in the Democratic camp, and the others can go either way.

One important component in four states will be the growing power to the far right wing of the Republican party. Through the traditional method of building up support and organization from the grass-roots level, the far right will be a major play in elections this year in Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan and California. In California and Minnesota, the far right backed challenges to the reelection campaigns of Republican governors only to be rebuffed, and it remains to be seen whether they will vote in large numbers for the incumbent Republicans (Pete Wilson in California and Arne Carlson in Minnesota) or stay home in protest.

But it is in Virginia where the far right will have the biggest impact. Because voter turnout is expected to be so low across the United States, voter turnout will be an important factor in determining the winners on election day. But get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drives take experience and are not easily done overnight. In Virginia, while Chuck Robb and the Democrats have traditionally enjoyed an edge in GOTV efforts, Oliver North is being backed by the state’s far right community, which only last year brought out over 785,000 voters to support their under-funded candidate for lieutenant governor. With North’s prodigious campaign war chest at their disposal, the far rights’ GOTV campaign could well swing Virginia’s Senate seat in the Republican column.

In the House of Representatives, things also look dark for the Democrats. While the Democrats currently hold an 83-seat majority, a swing of only 42 seats (which is within the realm of possibility) would bring the Republicans into the majority; but an even smaller gain could gain the GOP ideological control of the chamber. It is important to remember that several of Clinton’s most important victories, including the assault weapons ban and his budget package, passed by the slimmest of margins and even ten more Republican votes would have made the difference. It is with this in mind that Democrats worry that of the 78 House seats rated as toss-ups on election day, Democrats are defending 63 of them, and the Republicans only 15. There will be Republican gains in the House this November, the only question is how many and which seats. Again, the role of an energized right wing could tip the balance toward the Republicans in a close election.

So the Republican gains from 1992 will be complimented by more gains this year – that’s the bad news for Clinton. The good news is that the President is in a better personal position than he has been in the past year, so it is unlikely that the losses of his party will be viewed as a personal rebuke of Clinton by the voters.

The President will, however, face an extremely trying time in dealing with the new Congress for the remainder of his term. That Congress will certainly be more heavily Republican than it is now, even if the GOP does not attain majorities in either the House or Senate, than it was during the last two years. The Republicans will be emboldened by their gains, and will be eager to derail the President’s agenda and inflict what political damage they can in preparation for their own party’s bid to recapture the White House in 1996.

Clinton performed well under similar circumstances since his election two years ago, though increased Republican strength will mean he cannot afford to repeat the political missteps of his first two years. So it can be expected that Clinton will move further to the center of American politics in order to win some legislative victories and avoid total “gridlock” (Paralysis) in government.

The real story of the 1994 elections, however, cannot be found by measuring wins and losses for this or that party, or this or that ideology. The real losers are the U.S. voting (and non-voting) public and their confidence in government and elected officials, as they continue to be battered by negative ads that shake this confidence in all who hold elective office. This ugly environment makes it difficult for any politician to win and hold the public trust that is needed to govern effectively in this country.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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