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Americans Stay Loyal to Parties Despite Recent Events

October 5, 2006 at 2:10 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: What impact could the Mark Foley scandal have on the midterm elections? The national polls so far are ambiguous on that point.

A survey by the Pew Research Center, which ended this past Tuesday, compared voters’ overall party preferences in the eight days before and the five days after Congressman Foley’s resignation. Before he resigned, 51 percent said they would vote Democratic, while 38 percent would vote Republican. After the resignation, there was no real change: 50 percent said they would vote Democratic, 37 percent would vote Republican.

But an Associated Press poll taken this past Monday through Wednesday suggested some potential impact. Nearly half — 48 percent — said recent disclosures of corruption and scandal in Congress would be very or extremely important to the way they vote. And another 16 percent said moderately important.

But this poll, too, found no change in party preferences between mid-September and now.

There has been a shift in the Pew poll on what 53 percent of voters say is the most important national issue: Iraq. The public assessment has grown gloomier. In early September, 48 percent said the U.S. military effort was not going well. In the more recent poll, 58 percent felt that way.

And the Pew poll also found that a 47 percent plurality now believes the war in Iraq is hurting the war on terror. In June, a plurality of voters thought it was helping the war on terror.

For more on the voters’ state of mind, we turn to Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press, and John Mercurio, senior editor of The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, Andy, let’s start with the Foley scandal. What do you make of these polls? How do you interpret them? Does it mean it’s too soon to tell or that, in fact, Republicans aren’t going to suffer from this?

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Center for the People and the Press: Well, it’s almost a situation where the Republicans are so low this hasn’t driven their numbers even lower. It’s almost a scary situation for the Republicans, because it shows how locked in these numbers have been. They haven’t changed all year.

And recently, we saw terrorism rise up in the public’s consciousness, we saw gasoline prices go down, things that should help the Republicans. Those positive things didn’t help the Republicans, and this very negative thing didn’t help the Republicans.

The Republicans have a big challenge ahead, and this is certainly going to get in the way of getting their message out and might disillusion voters, disillusion their base, but certainly the immediate impact isn’t some big deleterious plunge in the polls.

Vulnerability for the Republicans

John Mercurio
Senior Editor, The Hotline
I think by far the most aggressive people to be campaigning on this right now are conservative Republicans. They're distancing themselves from the Republican leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: How are the Republican and Democratic candidates out in the field reacting to this? Are they acting as if they think it matters?

JOHN MERCURIO, Senior Editor, Hotline: I think so, at this point. I mean, you're seeing an across-the-board -- obviously, an across-the-board condemnation of Congressman Foley and his behavior, obviously. But once you dip below that, the picture gets a little bit murkier.

I think by far the most aggressive people to be campaigning on this right now are conservative Republicans. They're distancing themselves from the Republican leadership. You actually had a conservative member of Congress, Ron Lewis from Kentucky, cancel a fundraiser with Speaker Hastert, scheduled for next week.

So I think Republicans are trying at this point to contain what they see what could possibly be a very scary situation. On the Democratic side, it's a little more wait-and-see.

You do have one Democratic candidate in an open seat in Minnesota running a television ad in which she sort of introduces this issue. She's a child safety advocate, so she's, I think, viewed as someone who's legitimately able to talk about this issue.

But at this point, there's still, I think, a very much wait-and-see situation, because we don't necessarily know what the rest of the sorry is going to be.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Andy, if you go deeper into voter attitudes about incumbents, about Republicans, about the congressional leadership, is there a potential vulnerability there for Republicans, if the Democrats can succeed in making this not just about Foley, but about how the leadership handled it?

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes. Well, there's a lot of disillusionment with the status quo. And this can potentially only add to things have to change in Washington. That's why we've seen such consistent anti-incumbents sentiment in this election, and that translates into a negative position for the Republicans.

Of the 35 incumbent seats that Charlie Cook says are in play this time, 28 of them are Republican. Only seven are Democratic, just the opposite of what we saw in '94, the other election of great change, when they were mostly Democratic.

Impact on other races

John Mercurio
Senior Editor, The Hotline
[The Democrats in the House] were able to recruit not just top-tier competitive candidates to run in their top races; they were also able to recruit relatively qualified second-tier candidates.

MARGARET WARNER: So, John, you all track these individual races, too. Do you think more are now in play, in part because of the Foley scandal, or do you think it's still about 35 of -- the Democrats need 15?

JOHN MERCURIO: Right. Democrats need 15 seats to take back the House. I think we're probably still a couple days to a week away from really knowing how this story is going to play out.

But what really benefits the Democrats in the House at this point is that they had an extremely successful and effective recruiting season last year. They were able to recruit not just top-tier competitive candidates to run in their top races; they were also able to recruit relatively qualified second-tier candidates, people running in these races that not a lot of people have been paying attention to: Nevada's 2nd District, Democratic challenger to John Doolittle in California.

Those races, those Democratic candidates could see their fortunes rise if this scandal takes hold and becomes part of a national wave.

MARGARET WARNER: And what are you hearing about the Republican strategy for dealing with the Foley scandal in a campaign context? For instance, is there unity behind the idea that Denny Hastert and the rest of the leadership should stay in their jobs?

JOHN MERCURIO: Well, I think that's part of the reason that Republicans have had so much trouble this week is that there is no unity at this point. A few, you know, Republicans calling for Denny Hastert's resignation.

There was polling, though, internal polling that came out today, Republican polling -- I believe it was from the Republican National Committee -- that said that Republicans could stand to lose as many as 50 seats if Denny Hastert stays on as speaker.

Now, that's not necessarily -- I can't really comment on the specific statistical polling, but what I can say is what it shows is that there is a strategy, a coordinated strategy, within the Republican apparatus to try to discourage Speaker Hastert from staying on.

The National Intelligence Estimate

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
Terrorism and the economy are important, but they're secondary to Iraq. There's a lot of discontent about Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: So what happened today may not tamp that down.

So, Andy, if we go now to the issues that the voters say are front and center, Iraq and terror, what shifted there? And where do things stand now?

ANDREW KOHUT: I think what's happened lately that's really made a difference is this national intelligence assessment. We saw a clear plurality saying the war in Iraq is hurting the war on terrorism. We've seen the most negative numbers, in terms of the public's assessment of how things are going in Iraq.

And in a nationalized election, the issue that's really at the top of the agenda for people who say they're going to be thinking about national issues when they cast a ballot in their districts is Iraq, number one. Now, terrorism and the economy are important, but they're secondary to Iraq. There's a lot of discontent about Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: There is often the feeling here, though, that something like the National Intelligence Estimate or the revelations in the Bob Woodward book are kind of inside-the-Beltway stories. Did you find that voters really knew about this NIE, that said essentially that the intelligence community in the United States -- I mean, the intelligence community here in Washington thought that the war in Iraq was hurting the war on terror?

ANDREW KOHUT: Not only did we find 80 percent having heard about it, we saw the numbers change. We saw the percentage of people saying that the war in Iraq is hurting the war on terrorism increase over the past three weeks.

I mean, this really had an impact. And Iraq is one of the principle reasons why this election is exceptional; that is, it's about national things. Typically midterm elections are about local candidates.

Democrats on Iraq, President

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
One of the things that we do see is that Republicans themselves seem a little less anti-incumbent. They might be inclined to go out and support those Republicans who are being challenged.

MARGARET WARNER: And in a nutshell, what are the Democrats saying other than criticizing the president? Do they have a coherent election message on this, on Iraq?

JOHN MERCURIO: You know, they claim that they do. And if you ask the House Democratic leadership, they'll talk about, you know, the six-point plan that involves increasing the minimum wage, expanding the prescription drug benefit, making college tuition.

MARGARET WARNER: But on Iraq?

JOHN MERCURIO: But I'm sorry?

MARGARET WARNER: But on Iraq?

JOHN MERCURIO: But on Iraq -- well, no, that's where they remain just as divided as they have been. But frankly -- and I don't mean to overplay the significance of this Foley scandal -- but I have a hard time seeing, between now and November 7th, Election Day, especially if this Ethics Committee investigation gets wrapped up some time in the next couple of weeks, how we're able to get beyond sort of the significance of that scandal.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, the one bit of good news for the Republicans has been gas prices have gone down. Any benefit from that?

ANDREW KOHUT: We haven't really seen it. But one of the things that we do see is that Republicans themselves seem a little less anti-incumbent. They might be inclined to go out and support those Republicans who are being challenged, that is if they're not depressed by this scandal and the problems in Washington with their leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: And does the no impact from gas prices surprise you?

JOHN MERCURIO: No, because I think what generally happens is that, if the economy is not doing well, or if gas prices are too high, then voters tend to take it out on the incumbent party. When the economy is doing well and gas prices are low, you know, voters sort of consider it the status quo.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. John Mercurio, Andy Kohut, thank you both.

JOHN MERCURIO: Thank you.