TOPICS > Politics

Congressional Races

October 24, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And, once again, I’m with Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Andy, what do the polls tell us about congressional races overall?

MR. KOHUT: It’s very close. When we ask people if they’re inclined to vote for a Democratic candidate or a Republican candidate, we get a 48 percent Democrat, 44 percent Republican margin. That’s nowhere near like the 12-point lead that Bill I has over Bob Dole. And it’s even closer than that if you look at some of the other trends in these surveys. We find more support for incumbents this year than we found two years ago. By a margin of 62 percent, people think or 62 percent of people think that their incumbent deserves reelection. 55 percent felt that way two years ago. More people say they’re focusing on local issues, rather than national issues, which means they’re not going to be talking about or thinking about Newt Gingrich when they pull that lever, so those are good things for the Republicans, and that further undercuts that small Democratic lead.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Any indication as to why those shifts have taken place?

MR. KOHUT: Well, I think that it’s a question of the Republicans being more unified in the–the Republican and conservative groups being more unified in their views about Congress than their feelings about Bob Dole. I mean, a lot of the people who are voting for Bill–say they might vote for Bill Clinton and are also going to vote for a Republican are those populists that I was talking about earlier, and also the more moderate Republicans who have problems with Dole, but they want to see a Republican Congress, the Republicans continue to control Congress.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is that because they want checks and balances, they want a divided government?

MR. KOHUT: Well, it’s because they’re Republicans, and we really have parity in terms of these two parties. We don’t have parity in terms of the two–the two candidates at the top of the ticket. And I think there’s also a–there seems to be a fair degree of support for a divided government, but it’s unclear whether this–what’s referred to as, as strategic voting will actually happen here, and that’s the notion that people get in their heads that Bill Clinton’s going to win the presidency, which most people do have in their heads. They will come to the view that they should vote for the Republican candidate. My own feeling is they’re going to focus on what they hear about–from local, local candidates, as we saw in the piece before this, and not think about, you know, grand strategy and what’s going to happen in the House of Representatives in Washington. They’re going to think about their own, their own backyard, and whether this Congressman is–Congress person is going to serve them well.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you’re saying that Clinton–the Clinton-Gore team don’t have coattails?

MR. KOHUT: Well, what there is, is a large crossover vote. There are many moderate Republicans who are thinking about voting for Bill Clinton; they’re going to vote Republican in the congressional elections; that’s almost certain. The other issue is turnout, and will, will these Republicans actually stay with it, or will they be dispirited because of the presidential race and sit home, and that would help the Democrats.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, Andy, thank you.

MR. KOHUT: You’re welcome.

JIM LEHRER: Now, more on the congressional contests and to Margaret Warner.

MARARET WARNER: We get two perspectives now on the battle for control of the House of Representatives. Thomas Mann is the director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, and Ronald Elving is a political editor for the Congressional Quarterly. Welcome, gentlemen. How, or in what way, Tom, are the Tennessee races we just saw typical of the dynamic that we’re seeing across the country in these House races?

THOMAS MANN, Brookings Institution: Well, I think they are important in several respects. First of all, each party must hold their incumbent seats in these races if they are to realize their objective nationally. Hilleary, Republican freshman’s seat is one that represents the tremendous gains the Republicans realized in the South. They’ve finally come out on top in the South, and frankly, they can’t afford to lose seats they now control. If they were to lose Hilleary, they would lose five or six other freshman, Republican seats in the South, and their majority is long gone. Similarly, Bart Gordon survived a deluge in 1994 as–

MARARET WARNER: He’s a Democrat in the other–

MR. MANN: He’s a Democrat in the other seat. Now when the national tides are running much more favorable to his party, he has to be able to hold off that Republican challenge again. In fact, our best guess is that each of these incumbents will survive, and the outcome of a national struggle will be decided elsewhere.

MARARET WARNER: Pointing out that the Democrats need 19–a gain of 19 to regain control of the House.

MR. MANN: That’s correct.

MARARET WARNER: Your thoughts on those two Tennessee races.

RONALD ELVING, Congressional Quarterly: Well, we bring the most to the incumbents in our survey of the House races that we’ve just published this week, and that highlights something that is beginning to emerge, and that is that incumbency is back. We have an incumbent president who is being reelected, and that may not seem like a phenomenal thing, except that it’s only the second time that that’s happened in a generation. We have to go all the way back to 1984, and then all the way back to 1972, and then it’s quite a haul back before that again. We don’t do that that often anymore. On the Senate side, incumbents are doing pretty well by and large. And now in the House, we see a situation where with the exception of those House freshmen who are representing distinctly Democratic districts that are almost certain to vote for Bill Clinton, that group is endangered, might be as large as two dozen seats. If you set those people aside, the rest of the incumbents in the House, Republican and Democrat, either way, are pretty, pretty secure at this point and will probably have reelection rates well over 95 percent.

MARARET WARNER: All right. Let’s look at a couple of the regions that are best for each party. Would you say the South is the best for the Republicans?

MR. MANN: There’s no question. If the Republicans are to retain their majority, they must come out of the South with a net pickup of seats. In fact, I think if they come out with 10 additional seats mainly from those open Democratic seats, they’re going to hold onto their majority. The worst parts of the country for the Republicans is everything else. That’s where Democrats have a real shot. The Northeast, the Midwest, and then the West, especially the Pacific Coast region, Washington, Oregon, and California.

MARARET WARNER: And why is that?

MR. ELVING: Why are the seats distributed that way?

MARARET WARNER: No, no. Why is the South, if you agree, really the only very much of a Republican stronghold in House races?

MR. ELVING: Well, the South has been particularly socially and culturally the more conservative part of the country for a long time, and of course, for a century, it was almost illegal to be a Republican in the South, and the hangover of the Civil War in that entire Reconstruction Period made it very difficult to have a Republican Party there, but once the Republican Party got established, it was only a matter of time before they would be the majority party in the South, and actually that happened finally in 1995–excuse me, 1994, in that election when they got the majority of House seats, Senate seats, and governorships for the first time all in one election, all in one day. So I believe the South will continue to trend in the Republican direction as long as it is a culturally, socially conservative region. The rest of the country has pockets of more liberal feelings, certainly the Northeast does. Right now, the Northeast is the only region in the country that has a majority of Democrats in the House. The other three regions all have a majority of Republicans, but that could change on November 5th.

MARARET WARNER: What issues or what things are in play in other regions that are helping Democrats that aren’t in play in the South?

MR. MANN: Medicare remains the biggest issue. In fact, it’s the first part of a Republican Congress, that is being thrown back in Republican faces. This, this contest is really about which part of the Republican Congress will determine the outcome of the election? Is it the part before the government shutdown and budget confrontation, or the part afterwards, when Republicans changed course and produced rather impressive legislative harvests. Democrats are focusing on the early dealings, cuts in education and environment and the attack on Medicare and Medicaid. The Republicans are pointing with pride to the welfare bill and to the reductions in discretionary domestic spending. That’s where the issues are framed, and I just think the Democrats are getting a little more traction in the other parts of the country.

MARARET WARNER: And, Ron, what impact–we saw in this Tennessee piece, um, a little bit about the big AFL-CIO, you know, advertising blitz, something like $35 million nationwide, trying to target certain House Republicans, is it too early yet to see what impact that’s really having, or do we have a sense? Are the, are the people that have been targeted by them in more trouble?

MR. ELVING: I don’t think there’s any question that they are in more trouble, but to some degree they began by targeting the people they thought would be less vulnerable.

MARARET WARNER: Weren’t vulnerable. Yeah.

MR. ELVING: But I do think the ultimate effect of it is in question. We’ll see in the long run what happens, and there’s been a little bit of backlash against it in a few districts, but, on balance, it’s already been an enormous political success. Whether they win any seats or not, they have had an enormous effect on the debate, even on the presidential level of the debate, by raising the issues that the AFL-CIO wanted to talk about. And those issues, first of all, they got a minimum wage increase through that probably would not have gotten through without this campaign which began all the way back in March, and then–

MARARET WARNER: With a lot of Republican votes.

MR. ELVING: And exactly, with about 40 Republican votes, many of them from the very people who were on this target list.


MR. ELVING: And then, of course, they’ve dominated the issues this fall by getting Medicare out there, by getting environment, and education up there, and things that the AFL-CIO wants to talk about.

MARARET WARNER: Okay. Now, what effect is the presidential race having on these House races do you think?

MR. MANN: Listen. If Bill Clinton were running even with Bob Dole now, we’d be talking about twenty/twenty-five/thirty seat pickup for the Republican Party. The reality is that Bill Clinton’s large lead creates the real opportunity, the only opportunity for the Democrats to regain control. It’s partly a matter of getting enthusiasm among Democratic loyalists, core supporters who are going to come out to the polls and vote for him, it’s partly a matter of terrifying voters about what Republicans might do to their favored public programs. It’s not so much that we have long coattails. It’s that a big presidential lead creates a different kind of a dynamic. It affects turnout, which is extremely important in the congressional races, and it affects the way in which the debate is framed in these congressional races.

MARARET WARNER: So, is what you’re saying that it’s because Bill Clinton is good at articulating this, oh, my God, the Republican House is so terrible, that that creates what, a context for these other House members, the Democrats.

MR. MANN: There’s just no question about it. We tend to complain about Bob Dole’s candidacy, and it hasn’t been great, but it was the Clinton Republican Congress confrontation that set the context in which Bill Clinton has amassed a bill–big lead, and in which Democrats have built an opportunity to seize back control of the House.

MARARET WARNER: And is there any evidence, Ron, are any Republicans–Republican House members starting to run, tacitly acknowledging that Bob Dole may lose and using what they call the blank check strategy, which is, hey, you may want to vote for Bill Clinton but don’t give him a blank check, send me to Congress?

MR. ELVING: Absolutely. And it’s done in a tacit fashion. For example, you run ads that don’t really make that much about the fact that you happen to be a Republican. You don’t mention Bob Dole when you go out and campaign on the stump. You are someplace else when Bob Dole comes through your state. You don’t make every effort to get up on the stage with him. Of course, some Republicans do. And perhaps the majority of Republicans do. But at the margin, where the two dozen or three dozen Republicans are in the most trouble, they have to make a very careful personal calculation here as to whether or not they can still save that seat, still save that seat in the Senate or the House by getting a little bit of daylight between themselves and the national ticket.

MARARET WARNER: But you’re talking about keeping a distance. What about a more overt strategy of, send me there as a check on Bill Clinton?

MR. MANN: The danger with that is it could further depress Bob Dole’s vote, lead to a bigger Clinton landslide, and undo their efforts to separate themselves and protect themselves. It’s not clear that voters respond to the call for divided government. You know, they embrace it theoretically, but there’s no evidence that people who like divided government split their ballots more than people who don’t like divided government. So it’s a risky strategy for them to do this explicitly, just as it would be a risky strategy for President Clinton to call for a Democratic Congress. It would probably backfire. These appeals, these efforts have to be much subtler in terms of framing issues, steering resources.

MARARET WARNER: Do you agree that the President is also doing it in a subtle way?

MR. ELVING: Absolutely. The way he does it is he goes into an individual situation, appears on the stage with some members, appears on behalf of one particular Senator, says good things about that particular person, and urges the reelection of that individual, but, again, without the big partisan overlay and without that big umbrella urging of everyone to go with one party to run all of the government. I think Bill Clinton knows very well that that would not be good for him or his party.

MARARET WARNER: All right. Well, thanks. We’ll leave it there. Ron, Tom, thanks.