Posted on November 18, 2002 in Washington Watch

The Republican takeover of the United States Senate is widely credited to the remarkable ten-day effort made by President George W. Bush. In the last few weeks of the campaign, the President made visits to 18 key states in an effort to rally support for Republicans Senate aspirants engaged in especially close contests.

It was a bold move by Bush. In campaigning as he did, he put his prestige on the line. There was significant risk involved. If Republicans had lost, Bush would have been seriously weakened. But with Republican candidates winning 13 out of the 18 races the White House had identified as targets, the President emerged politically stronger and in control of both Houses of Congress.

Despite this outcome, there was no seismic shift in the electorate. This was an election determined by a handful of voters. The margins of victory were so slight that the outcome could not be seen as a mandate. That, however, does not diminish the significance of the Republicans’ victory. The President’s party now controls the Senate, albeit by a mere two or three votes. They will chair its committees and determine the legislative calendar and agenda. Republicans will be in a position to call hearings and push through the President’s appointments–power they have not had for over one year. The bottom line: no major shift in the electorate, but a major change in the politics of Washington.

Three months ago, no such outcome was expected. During the late summer, the Democrats were confident that they would win major victories in November. Corporate scandals (some possibly involving the President and Vice-President), a sharp downturn in the stock market, reports of deficits in the federal budget and a continuing slump in the economy–all had heightened the Democrats’ expectations.

Polling data showed that the President’s approval ratings were down and that voters were focusing more on what were seen as Democratic issues and less on the Republicans’ strong suit, i.e., national defense and the war on terrorism.

What the White House did between August and November was nothing short of masterful. They changed the subject of the national debate, exposed the weaknesses and lack of vision of their opponent’s leadership and restored the image of Bush as a strong leader.

Democrats had wanted to focus the national debate on the Administration’s economic failures, but by accepting the President’s challenge to vote on an Iraq war resolution, they lost six precious weeks of campaigning. With Iraq consuming the headlines for all of September and October (sharing space for a time in October with news of the Washington area sniper), not only were the Democrats unable to get the debate back on their turf, but the time frame in which the nation would focus on the election was compressed into a mere two week period.

During all of this time the President stayed on message. He chided Democrats for not passing his Homeland Security Program and urged them to support his hard line against Iraq. It was a direct and simple appeal that was clearly understood by voters. The Democrats were not so clear. Many Democrats opposed the Homeland Security Program, but the reasons for their opposition was never made clear enough to the public. The Party divided on the Iraq war issue, and Democratic plans even seemed fuzzy and uncertain on the economy.

In fact, an early November poll that asked voters to compare the vision of Democrats and Republicans. It found that while voters by two to one identified the Republicans as having a vision, by the same two to one margin, voters could not identify the Democrats’ vision for the country.

After passing the Iraq resolution, the President emerged emboldened with his leadership credentials restored. He then embarked on his national campaign, urging voters to elect Senators and Congressmen who would support his efforts. Crisscrossing the country, his travels dominated the national news and were the focus of local news in the states he visited.

Looking at the results, it was clear that the President’s impact was not overwhelming, but was enough to win. In very close races where the outcome hinged on a few thousand votes, Bush’s efforts moved enough Republicans to the polls to make a difference.

Post-election polling shows how effective Bush’s efforts were. In several of the states, between five to 11 percent of the voters indicated that they made their decisions about whom to support as late as election day, and a number of cases indicated that decisions were influenced by support for the President.

While it is true that these elections were local and not national, and that the main issues were still the economy and the personalities of the candidates who were running, the role of the President was still important. Since the electorate is so evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and since a number of the Senate races, in question, were decided by a few percentage points, the White House’s calculations that the President’s imprint, though small, might be enough to change the course of the election, turned out to be correct.

It is interesting to note that in the states where Republicans won narrow victories, Bush’s popularity was quite high. Equally important was the fact that in many of the these same states, although the economy was ranked as the number-one concern, a significant majority of voters gave Bush high marks for this handling of the economy. These are numbers we have not seen since the summer’s corporate scandals and economic slump. The change is not due to any real improvement of the economy; rather it is the result of changes in the perception of leadership qualities of the President, most probably a direct spillover from his victory in the Iraq debate with Congress.

In the post-election period, Democrats are engaged in self-criticism, while Republicans are heady with victory. The President won: but the economy is still in a slump, Afghanistan remains a concern, al-Qaeda has not been defeated, and many are still deeply concerned about the impact of a war with Iraq.

The dust has settled on the election of 2002, but the political and economic landscapes look no better than they did in August. In fact, in the end, it may be that it was easier for the President to have won the election and be in control of Congress, than it will be for the Administration to solve the serious problem facing the U.S. today.

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