SEPTEMBER 20, 1996
Margaret Warner discusses the 1996 election possibilities with Stu Rothenberg and Charles Cook, who both put out political analysis reports.
MARGARET WARNER : There are just six and a half weeks to go before election day, and while much of the national attention has gone to the presidential race, the stakes are high in the congressional campaigns too. Republicans hope to retain the control of Congress that they won just two years ago. The Democrats, of course, hope to win back the majority. The current line-up looks like this: The House has 235 Republicans, 198 Democrats, one independent, and one vacancy right now. That means the Democrats would have to make a net gain of 20 seats to take control. The Senate has 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats. A net shift of four seats would be needed to shift control there. All 435 House seats and 34 of the 100 Senate seats are at stake in this election. We get two perspectives now on these races. Stuart Rothenberg is the editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, and Charles Cook is the editor of the Cook Political Report. Welcome, gentlemen. Charlie, give us an overview. How many--let's look at the House races first--how many of these 435 elections are really in play, really contested?
CHARLES COOK, Cook Political Report: About a hundred and fifty, a hundred and sixty seats that are pretty competitive and about sixty or seventy of those are very, very, very close, ones that are single digit, or where the incumbent is not only below 50 but oftentimes below 48 percent. So these are very close elections.
MARGARET WARNER : And any--can you see any trend yet, I mean, one party or the other more vulnerable?
MR. COOK: Well, I think in terms of raw numbers, it's fairly even, but one of the things that we're watching is a question on the national polls where they ask if they election were held today would you vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress or the Republican candidate, and if you take an average of all the recent polls, Democrats are up by about five. And that was a good leading indicator in 1994 that Republicans were going to have a big win. But the thing to watch, I think, would be watch the Republican freshmen and watch the Democratic open seats, particularly in the South and in the Rockies.
MARGARET WARNER : Mm-hmm. So how--what do the Democrats have to do to get this net gain of 20 more seats, and how are they going about it, Stu?
STUART ROTHENBERG, Rothenberg Political Report: Well, I think there are two key groups. There are, as Charlie said, freshman Republicans, there are two, three dozen of them who I think are in serious trouble. The Democrats need to knock off twenty, twenty-five of them, and then there are Democratic open seats. These are Democrats who are retiring or they're running for other office. This is an area of Democratic vulnerability. Essentially, Democrats have to hold their own seats, and they have to pick up the Republican freshmen. The way they seem to be trying to do it is by nationalizing the election. Rather than take this district by district, they're trying to make the congressional elections a referendum not on Bob Dole and Bill Clinton but on Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress.
MARGARET WARNER : Doing essentially what the Republicans did so successfully in ‘94 running against the Democratic Congress?
MR. ROTHENBERG: Yeah, that's right. Every couple of years one party generally tries to nationalize, and that's the party with the momentum, with the issues. It catches the public mood. And the other party invariably tries to localize, making a contest between individual candidates, some of whom have pretty substantial flaws, and fight it one on one. Interestingly, Ulm, it's not that long ago, six, eight months ago, when Republicans were telling me they wanted to nationalize as well. They were saying we want the ‘96 elections to be a second referendum on the Republican revolution, we started it but we want to continue it. They backed off that significantly.
MARGARET WARNER : Is that what you're seeing out there?
MR. COOK: I think so, and the question is sort of where is--is the playing field really tilted, because when you have a playing field tilted like it was for Republicans in ‘94, like it appears to be now, that means the bulk of the close races go one way. For example, the races that I call or Stu call toss-ups in the last election, Republicans won 75 percent of ‘em, so that's what happens when you've got the wind at your back.
MARGARET WARNER : So what can you all tell from the polling that's being done out there, and we should say that these local polls are very spotty, but about how successful the Democrats are at connecting the local Republicans congressmen with Newt Gingrich or the radical Republicans Congress as they see it?
MR. COOK: Well, Democrats have had some success, but the people who have really had successes are organized labor, some of the environmental groups, and some liberal consumer groups that are out there. We've seen a massive amount of advertising, a literally unprecedented amount of advertising, attacking Republican freshmen, usually the Republican freshmen around the country, two, three, four, five hundred thousand dollars' worth of advertising in individual districts all over the country. And in some cases, it's more advertising than their opponent might spend in a normal--on a normal election, uh, and it's had a real effect. You can really tell which freshmen have been targeted and which ones were not.
MR. ROTHENBERG: Well, I'd agree completely that the Democrats at this point in the cycle have been quite successful in bashing Newt Gingrich, the Republican Congress, and linking them with individual Republican candidates. There's one bit of survey data that's a bit contradictory, and it doesn't have to do with Newt Gingrich. It has to do with the mood of the, of the public, and the survey did suggest that for some reason the public is a bit more optimistic about the future of the country, the direction of the country, uh, certainly about the economy, and so the Republicans have an opportunity to tap into that, since there are more incumbent Republicans than Democrats. That might actually give them some advantage, but Charlie's right. For the moment, Newt Gingrich is the, is the lightning rod for the Democrats.
MARGARET WARNER : But ironic that Clinton's, President Clinton's benefitting from that, but you're saying the Republican incumbents did as well.
MR. ROTHENBERG: Right.
MARGARET WARNER : Well, how are the Republicans trying to inoculate themselves or fight back against this strategy?
MR. COOK: Well, I think what you saw in the closing days of the session before they adjourned in August, you saw Republicans toning down a lot of the rhetoric which I think sort of created a negative caricature. They toned down the rhetoric. The passed some important pieces of legislation in closing days, and I think they helped themselves a good bit at that time, but they lost a lot of--about the time of the Democratic convention, they seemed to lose some of that momentum that they had from the adjournment, and now sort of back to where they were before, but sort of moderation, reasonableness, give us a little bit more time, uh, that sort of thing, sort of the general themes that we're hearing.
MARGARET WARNER : And, and you would put, I assume, what happened this week that Charlayne was just talking to Norm Ornstein and Julie Rovner about, the mental health bill and so on, as part of that effort.
MR. ROTHENBERG: Absolutely. The Republicans don't want another closing down of the government incident. They want to communicate to the voters that they can work, they can govern, they're flexible, they picked up some heavy negative baggage by appearing to be too ideological. I think there's another element here. I don't see Republican congressional candidates running away from Bob Dole in that they're beating up on him. I can recall--I'm sure Charlie will remember this too--how Democrats would--back in the McGovern election, they would indicate issues in which they disagreed with McGovern, how they, they were far from his agenda. I don't see Republican congressional candidates attacking Dole's tax cut, for example, but on the other hand, you don't see them embracing them. You don't see them talking about him, referring to him coordinating their message with his. They're running very localized campaigns.
MARGARET WARNER : Are you seeing them, though, distancing themselves at all consciously from Newt Gingrich?
MR. COOK: Oh, absolutely. Well, most of them, although we are seeing Gingrich going in and doing some fund-raisers here or there for individual candidates, but one thing I think is important is that there's no relationship between, if you look at all the post World War II elections, there's no relationship between the size of a presidential candidate's victory and what happened in the House and Senate. There really isn't at all, particularly if you look at the Nixon-McGovern election in ‘72, the Reagan-Mondale in ‘84, there really wasn't. Ulm, but what you can--but one thing I think we are watching for is whether in say October, if Dole is still way behind President Clinton, whether you might be seeing Republicans saying don't give Bill Clinton a blank check, and, and I don't think you're going to see a lot of voters deliberately consciously looking for divided government, but in a very close congressional race, I think that argument could make a difference.
MR. ROTHENBERG: We've seen some survey data recently where people say if you knew that Bill Clinton was going to be reelected, how would you feel about voting for Congress, and they're much more likely to say that we prefer a Republican in Congress to keep an eye on Bill Clinton.
MARGARET WARNER : Now, are you two saying that you don't think there's any--that there are any “coattails?”
MR. ROTHENBERG: Well, there are coattails in a couple of ways--Charlie always talks about turnout and turnout in the--
MARGARET WARNER : Enthusiasm.
MR. ROTHENBERG: Right. Bob Dole getting pummeled in a general election could depress Republican turnout. Then it could be that the President decides to change his message and instead of talking about successes and how good things thing are, and welfare reform and health care reform, and how good the economy is--he unloads both barrels on the Republicans and wants to make this just a referendum on Newt Gingrich. That could change the environment. The presidential numbers are having an effect on what Charlie's referred to as the congressional generic ballot which is if the election were held today, would you vote for the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate? When Bob Dole's numbers improve, the congressional numbers for the Republicans improve. But I don't think that this election will be won or lost on coattails. It could be won or lost on whether the Democrat succeed on making this a referendum on Newt Gingrich.
MARGARET WARNER : Briefly before we go, what about money, who has the advantage in money of these two?
MR. COOK: Well, in terms of the early money, the AFL-CIO, this outside money really made a big difference for Democrats. In terms of party money, Republicans have significantly more, and that will be interesting to watch whether President Clinton decides to sort of unleash some of or divert some of the money that was going on for his reelection campaign over into the congressional races. We've never seen that it happen before. Incumbents tend to be greedy and want to run up the score. He's loaning a fund-raiser, but Democrats would rather see the cash.
MR. ROTHENBERG: I agree. I've heard some--oh, a little bit complaining of Democrat insiders that the congressional candidates aren't getting the cash and the presidential campaign is sopping it up. Ulm, but, Ulm--
MARGARET WARNER : Well, would it take--
MR. ROTHENBERG:--I think money--I think money in the final few weeks will be a Republican advantage because incumbents are raising money as they always have.
MARGARET WARNER : And how much would it take to equalize that advantage, do you know?
MR. COOK: I think if you put five or ten million bucks into the House, five or ten million into the Senate, uh, you would see Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle doing back flips across the Capitol grounds.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you both very much.