Posted on October 21, 2002 in Washington Watch

If the 2000 election was remarkable for the lack of a clear direction indicated by the final vote tally, it appears that the 2002 elections will only add to this picture of confusion.

It should be remembered that when all of the 2000 votes were added together on the presidential, senatorial and congressional levels, the parties evenly divided the votes cast. This year, it seems, voters will again do the same thing.

With just two weeks remaining before Americans decide the composition of the next Congress, the U.S. political picture is confused.

There are 36 governorships, 34 Senate seats, and all 435 congressional posts up for election. With Democrats holding a one-seat advantage in the Senate and Republicans holding 51 percent of the seats in the Congress (to the Democrats 49 percent), control of both Houses of Congress is up for grabs.

At stake for the Republicans is the control of the Senate, which President Bush needs to push through his agenda. Democrats, on the other hand, need to maintain their hold over the Senate so that they can continue to place at least some limits on the power of the President to define domestic and foreign policy priorities.

Historically the party that has just won the White House usually loses congressional seats in the next mid-term election. Republicans can ill afford to experience such a fate. To do so would cost them control of the Congress thereby giving Democrats majorities in both Houses. Republicans hoped that the huge boost in popularity the President received after his response to the 9/11 attacks might help to inoculate their party and save it from a mid-term slump.

But, during the last several months, the ebbs and flows in the national mood have been so pronounced that it is difficult to predict any outcome to November’s elections. During the late summer of 2002, after a number of corporate scandals (and revelations about some that might have involved the President and Vice President), a deep slide in the stock market and a continued decline in the nation’s economy, Democrats had hoped that the November contests would be a referendum on the economy and corporate responsibility.

In September the national debate dramatically shifted back to terrorism and the push for a war with Iraq, fueling Republican hopes that the election would be a national referendum on their strong suit: national defense and security issues.

Polls are mixed. One week Americans cite economic woes as their top concern, giving Democrats renewed hope that their issue will be in play. The next week, fears of renewed terrorism are back on top giving Republicans the opportunity to remind voters that their party is tougher on defense policy.

Instead of helping voters to focus on what is at stake in the election, this barrage of national issues appears to be drowning out any discussion of the elections. A recent study of local news broadcasts in the U.S.’s fifty major cities found that the 2002 elections receive scant mention in nightly broadcasts. The researchers investigated the content of almost 2,500 nightly news broadcasts aired during the last two weeks of September. They found that elections figured in less than one-half of these programs. When covered at all, elections received an average of only 80 seconds of airtime. And only five percent of all of those very short treatments dealt with congressional races. The bulk of the coverage was focused on state gubernatorial races.

The resultant picture that emerges is so confused that it appears that neither party will have an advantage.

Two additional observations need to be made. On the one hand, both political parties and many candidates appear to be set to break new records for campaign spending in a mid-term election. At the same time, voter apathy has grown resulting in all-time low voter turnout. During this year’s primary election voters set a new record. Only 9.1 percent of all Democrats turned out to vote and only 7.7 percent of all Republican voters went to the polls. This total of less than 17 percent reflects a continuing downward trend in each successive midterm election since 1966 when a high of 33 percent turned out to vote.

Most analysts predict that this downward shift in voter involvement will continue in November, when less than one-third of all voters are expected to go to the polls.

Thus the 2002 picture, in brief: the stakes are great; there is confusion as to what the election is about; neither party has a clear advantage; there is little attention paid to the elections in local news, most is reserved for other local, national and international stories; campaign spending is high and voter turnout is expected to be low.

The election will not be national (i.e. an election where voters will be drawn to the polls by an overarching issue that favors one party), nor does it appear that the election will produce a national mandate. Instead it seems clear that 2002 will consist of 505 separate and individual contests, each decided on local concerns, personalities and issues.

Looking at the most up to date polls it appears that if the election were held today, Democrats might hold on to their one seat advantage in the Senate, while Republicans would probably continue to maintain a slim lead in the Congress. The one area where some measurable change might occur is in the Governor’s races, where Democrats might win enough of the states from Republicans to give both parties (you guessed it!) a near 50-50 split in control of governorships across the nation.

That is today’s picture. Though it is not likely to change, a dramatic development in the last two weeks of campaign 2002 may alter this dynamic. For example, a major international event, an early November announcement of an increase in unemployment or a domestic crisis that shakes public confidence-last minute developments such as these could tilt enough votes to change enough elections to alter the final outcome. But barring that, 2002 will end as it began, with confusion and a lack of political clarity.

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