Too Close to Call: A Roundtable Discussion on the 1996 Congressional Elections

Brookings Review, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Too Close to Call: A Roundtable Discussion on the 1996 Congressional Elections


On July 26, Thomas Mann, director of the Brookings Governmental Studies program, hosted a discussion of the upcoming fall congressional elections. Excerpts from the discussion follow.

TOM MANN: As we speak, Bill Clinton, with 57 percent approval ratings and a rather healthy economy, is likely to win reelection. But the congressional races seem wide open. What do you expect to happen in November?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Let's start with the House. National "generic" polls asking voters whether they prefer Democrats or Republicans in the House find a majority for the Democrats that ranges from 51 percent to as high as 63 percent. Realistically, the range is from 53 percent to 57 percent. At the bottom of that range, probably the Republicans would hold on to Congress; at the top, they wouldn't.

I think we all know the reasons for the national preference for the Democrats. It has much to do with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans. It has something to do with the individual candidates. Early on I thought the Republicans had an edge in candidate recruitment. I don't think so anymore. I see lots of terrific candidates on both sides. In addition, the Republicans are divided over issues like abortion and minimum wage. And they appear to have no coherent unified message, either at the top in the Dole campaign or coming out of Congress. All this has contributed to a huge advantage for the Democrats.

Looking at it race by race, right now I see a Democratic gain in the House of 8-12 seats. I give them about one chance in three of taking over the House.

TOM MANN: What about the Senate?

RON ELVING: I expect continued Republican dominance. A margin of 53 to 47 would be a good showing for the Republicans. All the Democrats need to take control is 50, with Al Gore available to break tie votes. If the South is an even split, then the Democrats don't need all the "M" states - Montana, Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts. A big Clinton win could push close ones the Democrats' way.

ADAM CLYMER: What does it take for the Democrats to get to 50?

RON ELVING: All the incumbents would have to win. They'd have to take Maine and Oregon and sneak up on another.

TOM MANN: What about the race between Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt in North Carolina?

RON ELVING: Helms is vulnerable. He's never won by big margins. His all-time peak was 52 percent.

TOM MANN: If Clinton has a big win - say, 10 points - would you expect a Democratic majority in the Senate?

RON ELVING: No. But if he gets more than 10, then it could happen.

TOM MANN: Stu, do you agree with Ron?

STUART ROTHENBERG: The Democrats could pick up a couple of seats. A majority in the Senate is doable for the Democrats, but unlikely.

TOM MANN: What matters from now until the election in November? Does it matter what eventually passes this Congress and becomes law?

ADAM CLYMER: Until recently, the Republicans seemed to think that they could win by blaming Clinton for vetoes. They have changed their minds and now they want bills enacted, not just confrontational issues. Getting welfare signed makes a big difference.

TOM MANN: Chris, what's your take on that? With welfare reform and the Kennedy-Kassebaum health care reform bill enacted and signed into law, would they have enough to block the criticism of an unproductive, querulous Congress and hold their majority?

CHRIS BLACK: Well, the other thing they have to do is defend what they did last year. What's killing some Republicans, especially up my way in New England, are the roughly 700 roll call votes in defense of the Republican agenda. And those don't go away. They're out there in black and white. I don't know whether the minimum wage and Kennedy-Kassebaum bills are going to be enough to offset the negatives.

TOM MANN: So the public got a fix on this Congress, probably during the government shutdown last winter and the immediate aftermath, and there's relatively little the Republicans can do in the remaining weeks of Congress to alter that? …

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