Voter turnout: the greatest unknown in Election '98
By Dave Kenney/AllPolitics
Political prognosticators are in a bind. Under normal circumstances, the upcoming election would seem to be a fairly easy call since the party that's not in the White House usually does well during off-year elections. But normal is not a word that applies to the circumstances of this political year. There are too many variables.
Not the least of which is voter turnout.
Conventional wisdom says Republicans will do well if turnout is low and Democrats will benefit if turnout is high. That's because hard core Republicans tend to have higher turnout rates than hard core Democrats.
But this year, with impeachment hearings on the horizon, predicting turnout at this stage in the campaign is tricky business. Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) says it's still too early to predict how the voters will respond. "I think the first real set of polls that might give us some indication will occur during the coming week," he says.
So instead of going out on the limb and predicting what turnout will be, many political analysts are instead offering up scenarios that may or may not happen. Some rely heavily on the public's reaction to the Lewinsky scandal. Others take into account other factors, such as the economy.
And no one is placing much money on any of them.
This may be the most popular scenario at the moment. Its basic premise: the Monica Lewinsky scandal will skew results by depressing voter turnout among Democrats and energizing the Republican faithful.
Under this scheme, the Democrats lose all hope of regaining control of the House and the Republicans improve their chances of achieving a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. It seems like a plausible outcome, but there's just one problem.
The evidence doesn't back it up. At least not yet.
Poll after poll shows that the American electorate wants to put the Lewinsky scandal behind it and move onto other issues. "If that continues to be true," says University of California at San Diego political scientist Gary C. Jacobson, "then the scenario of thrilled Republicans and depressed Democrats doesn't seem to be as straightforward."
Candidates seem to recognize this.
Unlike 1994, when Republicans did everything they could link their opponents to the president, Bill Clinton has been a non-issue in most congressional campaigns this year.
Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, says it all comes down to the president's high job approval ratings.
"He is not personally anathema," Madonna said. "Most voters still want him in office. So that's not a good strategy to just attack him per se. You have to figure out how to use it to your advantage."
Proponents of the motivated-depressed scenario point to 1974 as a precedent. In that year, discouraged Republicans failed to show up at the polls thanks in large part to the Watergate scandal and President Gerald Ford's subsequent pardon of Richard Nixon.
But Jacobson doesn't see a comparable level of disenchantment among Democrats this year. "I don't think that element is there," he says.
Under this scenario, Democrats are not depressed and humiliated and by the Lewinsky scandal. They're angry and motivated. Angry at the Republicans for supposedly dragging out the impeachment process. Motivated to show up in large numbers at the polls.
But again, the evidence supporting this scenario is shaky.
Madonna says some polls in recent weeks have shown that a backlash against the Republicans may be developing, but he's not convinced it will manifest itself in the voting booth. "It's still a pretty good incumbent year," he says. "There's nothing that convinces me differently."
And even if voters were beginning to get fed up with what they considered partisanship in the impeachment process, the process is now on hold. Lawmakers from both parties have left Washington to campaign in their home districts. There will be no new document dumps or Judiciary Committee hearings to stoke the fire of voters indignation until after the elections.
"My hunch is that if they were in session and debating this, the backlash might be greater," Madonna says. "But the fact now is that, if there's no news out of Washington and it's not top of mind that Clinton could actually be impeached, it might not have as big an effect."
It's easy to forget that some voters may consider factors other then the Lewinsky scandal when deciding whether to vote. In many less-scandalized elections, checkbook issues often determine the outcome, and it's possible the same may be true this year.
Jacobson says it's a scenario that could bode well for the Republicans.
"The economy's going great, the prime is down and the budget's in balance and there's a lot of positive things out there, so people may not worry much about the election," Jacobson says. "And that being the case, Republicans benefit because their core followers have higher turnout rates under normal circumstances than the Democrats do."
Statistics compiled by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) show that average overall turnout in the 36 states holding primaries this year dropped from 19.4 percent in 1994 to 17.4 percent in 1998, the lowest primary turnout rate on record.
The drop affected both major parties. But projecting those results onto the general election in an effort to predict turnout in November could be an exercise in futility.
For one thing, the CSAE says it found no evidence that the Lewinsky scandal had any effect on turnout during the primaries. That may not turn out to be the case during the general election.
Gans says that distinction alone makes it dangerous to make bold predictions based on the primary numbers. "The only thing that is certain is the political conditions which have undermined citizen will to vote and participate in politics have gotten worse," he said.
Despite all the uncertainty about the November turnout, it's probably fair to say that Democrats are still more nervous about it than Republicans are.
Historical trends suggest that the Democrats need a good turnout to do well this year, and right now, there don't seem to be too many galvanizing issues that might convince Democrats to vote in large numbers. Simmering anger over the Starr investigation and the Republicans' handling of the impeachment process could invigorate Democrats, but that's far from certain.
Republicans, on the other hand, can feel fairly confident that their most ardent supporters will show up on November 3. And that's half the battle.
"The Republican tactic is to assume that the people who hate Clinton are going to be mobilized anyway," Gans says. "They just don't want to antagonize the other parts of the electorate they want to draw from at a time when Clinton is not wildly unpopular."
In the meantime, the prognosticators will be working overtime, looking for signs that turnout will go one way or the other.
"Normally we worry about being right on the horserace questions," Madonna says. "But the problem here is we're just trying to figure out what the voters are going to do."
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