The 1998 election: It's Monica, stupid!
The Lewinsky scandal could impact turnout and the women's vote
By Carin Dessauer/CNN and AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (September 16) -- With just barely seven weeks to go until election day 1998, Democrats are becoming increasingly worried that the sex scandal that has rocked the White House will decrease turnout for the midterm election and, therefore, dash the party's hopes of taking back control of the House and keeping Republican gains elsewhere to a minimum. And women, who have increasingly become a force as a voting bloc in the past decade, could hold the key to the 1998 election.
Early reports show turnout was down across the board in the nine states and the District of Columbia where primaries or runoffs were held Tuesday.
But Democratic party officials point out that turnout has been down all year. Republicans are not as concerned because they think this will bode well for them in the general election.
"We believe turnout is likely to play in our favor because we think it is the Democrats who may stay home," a senior Republican party official says.
One Democratic party official stresses that primary turnout cannot be generalized. "Everyone wants to fit turnout into a neat little box," the official argues. "Different states have different turnout driven by different factors."
Still, Democratic operatives, who have been out in the field with polls since the Starr report was made public, concede that they are concerned. "One thing we have seen in (recent) polls is that this environment is a drag for Democrats," says Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who has just polled for some of his statewide and congressional candidates. Yang admits that the environment could depress turnout and hurt his party in the general election.
"Voters, especially Democratic voters, are disengaged," he said. Yang goes on to argue that for those races that are close, this could make the difference. "The elections in the margins will count."
"This is going to turn a political stalemate into a Republican election," CNN political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says. "In a typical midterm election the party that controls the White House usually loses seats, but this environment could increase Republican turnout and decrease Democratic turnout and that will not bode well for the Democrats."
The scandal impacts the election
Rothenberg argues that midterm elections rarely support the status quo and more typically punish the party that controls the White House. "This could have been the second time this century (1934) that Democrats were poised to pick up seats," Rothenberg says. "That would indeed have been an aberration. But now any race that was considered a tossup, you have to give the Republicans a slight advantage." Rothenberg has just moved 12 more House races toward the Republicans and he believes three Senate races -- South Carolina, Nevada and Kentucky -- are particularly impacted by the president's problems.
Democratic pollster Alan Secrest, who polls for numerous congressional candidates and also is doing statewide polling for Democratic coordinated campaigns, sees the White House's problems as not only likely to suppress Democratic turnout, but also hinder Democrats' ability to talk about their issues of education, health care and Social Security. "This has made the hill steeper for Democrats," Secrest said.
The Battleground Poll
And this is exactly what Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas found in their recent Battleground poll. "The big problem is that it (the scandal) is drowning out the dialogue of the discussion of Democratic issues of jobs, Social Security, health care," Lake argues.
Why? Lake and Goeas found that declining moral values had reemerged as an issue in the 1998 dialogue. When asked which issues do you want Congress to focus on, the "top choice was restoring moral values," then came "improving education," and then "reducing taxes and federal spending" and "fighting crime and drugs," the polls shows. The Republican issues of "morality, taxes and spending, and crime and drugs" are now at the top of voter's minds, the pollsters find.
Lake and Goeas, like some of their colleagues, also found that the Lewinsky environment is suppressing turnout and that women, who played a major role in creating a "gender gap" in 1992 that helped put Bill Clinton in the White House, may be defecting from Clinton and his party. "We saw movement among women," Goeas says. "Especially women under 65 who are at home."
Others pollsters from both parties are seeing the same thing. "Women could decide this election," says Republican pollster Wes Anderson. "Since this scandal broke women, over men, have stuck with the president, but we are starting to see some erosion."
Democratic pollster Yang concedes that he has seen a "drop-off among younger women." Said Yang: "This is bad for the Democrats because they have been more supportive of Clinton and if you look at women as a voting group, if they go south it could provide the one- or two-point difference" in individual races.
This means that the Democrats' hopes of winning the 11 seats needed to take back control of the House and holding the Republicans gains in the Senate to a minimum so that the Senate does not become filibuster-proof (if the GOP increases their margin from 55 to 60 seats) have been diminished. Democratic party officials even admit that their chances of taking back the House are "50-50."
Goeas, who is polling for Republican Fay Boozman in Arkansas' open Senate seat, is just releasing a poll that shows his candidate is making inroads in his race against former Democratic Rep. Blanche Lincoln Lambert. "We are seeing the same dynamic in effect in this state that we have seen nationally, that the president's scandal has weakened his party's chances in November," Goeas argues.
Could the scandal environment potentially impact women candidates more? Democratic pollster Lake, who polls for many women candidates, acknowledges that women candidates could be negatively affected. "It could hurt women candidates," Lake argues, "because there is a drop-off among women voters under 50 who are the most pro-women (candidate) voters."
What about the three women running for re-election in the Senate, who were elected in the 1992 "year of the woman"? These are the same women who benefited from the public's outrage with the Senate's handling of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1992.
Democratic party officials concede that both Washington Sen. Patty Murray and Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun are considering calling for Clinton's resignation. "They have both been mulling it over," one senior Democratic official says.
And what about California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who earlier in the election cycle was considered "safe," but now finds herself in a neck-and-neck race? Her pollster, Mark Mellman, argues that the White House scandal is not the reason that she is in a close race. "This race has been close, the scandal has not changed that," he said.
Still, Boxer, whose daughter is married to Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, is in a particularly precarious situation. "Here is a senator who was extremely critical of Senator Bob Packwood when he was in the midst of his women scandal and now she has been silent," one Democratic operative points out.
The scandal as an issue
Will more candidates come forward and use the scandal as an issue? For much of the election year, few if any candidates were willing to touch the scandal. All that changed in August. Now, some candidates on both sides of the aisle are not only calling for Clinton's resignation, but they are also using it in their ads.
Republican candidate Gil Aust (Ala.-5) has run an ad that calls on the president to resign. The ad says, "Our nation needs a president the world respects. Aust's message: "Mr. President, it's time for you to resign."
Embattled Republican Rep. Helen Chenoweth (Idaho-1) ran an ad where she talked about the importance of integrity and values. "President Clinton's behavior has severely damaged his ability to lead our nation, and the free world. To restore honor in public office, and the trust of the American people, we must affirm that personal conduct does count, and integrity matters. Where do you stand, Dan? (referring to her Democratic challenger Dan Williams)." But the ad backfired on Chenoweth when her own six-year extramarital affair was revealed and has now become an issue in the race.
Operatives in both parties and others point out the situation is very fluid. "The environment is extremely volatile," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland advises.
"Nobody knows for sure how this will play out," Republican National Committee Communications Director Cliff May says.
"We have never seen anything like this before," says one senior Democratic party official. The same official does not dismiss the chance that the scandal environment could produce a backlash against the Republicans. "When things were going well, there was no incentive to vote," one Democratic party official says. "Just last (Monday) night we raised more than we expected, four million dollars. Democratic fund-raising is going well and Democratic voters could become invigorated, especially African-American and Hispanic voters, because they are frustrated with how (Ken) Starr and the Republicans have handled this. We just don't know what will happen with women voters."
Turnout among all voters, as well as whether women voters will defect from the Democrats, are the keys to the 1998 election.