Magazine article Insight on the News

Trust and Consequences. (Washington Diary)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Trust and Consequences. (Washington Diary)

Article excerpt

It may not have been the equal of the historic sea change following the 1994 elections when Republicans gained control of both the Senate and the House for the first time in 40 years, but 2002 was historic nonetheless. By gaining seats in both the House and the Senate, George W. Bush and the Republicans broke the historic trend since 1934, the last time the party in control of the White House had done this in a midterm election. The GOP made monumental gains in state legislatures, adding to the historical tone of the evening. But the national media received the election returns with hysterical rather than historical analysis.

"I didn't see a lot of surprises.... We knew this could go either direction; we knew that either side could gain because toss-up races tend to break one way or the other. And that's what happened," said Charlie Cook, political analyst and editor/author of the Cook Political Report, before an audience at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Thankfully, little drama was added by the introduction in many states of new touch-balloting systems. There were problems, but most did not inspire action by the more than 10,000 Republican and Democratic election lawyers fanned out nationwide to sue at the drop of a ballot. In fact, lawyers seemed busier in the days leading up to Nov. 5 than on Election Day or afterward.

From lawsuits to enjoin New Jersey Democrats from replacing Sen. Robert Torricelli on the Garden State ballot to claims Elizabeth Dole's telephone solicitations violated the Tar Heel State's do-not-call statute, there was a disturbing propensity to lawyer every annoyance and take the campaigns to court.

As Cook saw it the Republican gains were received like high drama because "there actually is a Democratic or liberal bias in the news media.... Some [in the media] are surprised anyone would vote Republican." In fact, however, the redistricting process limited the historical threat to Republicans by creating more districts favorable to incumbents and leveling the playing field for 2002.

Although the nation remains fairly evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats as seen in the House, Senate and statehouses, the historic loss of footing was ignored as Democratic Party officials constantly referenced the gubernatorial races where their showing was a bit better. Even with gains in Illinois (where Democrats control both statehouses and the governor's mansion), Wisconsin and Michigan, the failure of Democrats to capitalize on the 11 Republican seats and 13 open seats in play was unexpected. Only one incumbent was defeated, while Republicans pulled upsets in GOP-hostile Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Just as the press overestimated Democratic strength, it again underestimated Bush's popularity among Americans and the impact his response to Sept. 11 had on their judgment about the character and ability of the Republican president.

But some of the result clearly came from superior strategy. Getting out the base, GOP advisers said, was critical. In a Nov. 6 memo, Republican pollster Matthew Dowd noted that in the 70-odd-year history of polling "this is the first Republican president to go into a mid-term election with a 90 percent or higher job approval among Republicans."

With an extraordinarily high level of trust among GOP voters and a 60 percent approval rating among all voters, the message Bush carried had resonance. Despite reports of declining consumer confidence, brighter economic news and Democrats' failure to offer an economic plan further buoyed Republican hopes for pickups. The tectonic shifting of the political plates was undeniable in internal GOP polls heading into the final weekend. According to Dowd, the GOP moved from even with Democrats on the issue of who could handle the economy to an eight-point advantage.

"The American people fundamentally trusted President Bush and Republican leaders more than Democratic candidates on the key issues of importance," Dowd wrote in his memo. …

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