For Voters, It's Back Toward the Middle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 5, 1998; Page A33
Voting patterns in this week's midterm elections suggest the American electorate has moved squarely back to the middle after shifting far to the right in the seminal election of 1994, with those who describe themselves as moderates showing up at levels not seen this decade.
These voters, along with blacks and independents, combined into a potent coalition that helped Democrats defy pre-election predictions of doom for the party and challenged traditional assumptions about who is most apt to show up at the polls.
At the same time, voter turnout dropped to its lowest level since 1942, with only about 36 percent of eligible voters casting ballots Tuesday. That compared with nearly 39 percent in 1994 and means that elections are increasingly being determined by whichever group is most successful at mobilizing voters.
"The biggest single conclusion I have is that the decline in participation is still with us," said Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which analyzes voter turnout. "The second is that people will turn out in certain places when there are important things to decide or there are important things on the agenda."
That appeared particularly true this year, according to a national exit poll taken by Voter News Service for The Washington Post and other media organizations. While the proportion of African American voters stayed roughly the same -- accounting for about 10 percent of those who voted -- strong black turnout was key to Democratic victories in a number of states with highly contested statewide races, most notably Maryland and Georgia.
The exit poll data reveal other intriguing facts about this year's election: The gender gap still exists, but it has closed considerably, not so much because women moved away from Democrats but because men moved toward them. The proportion of voters who described themselves as conservative and who traditionally can be counted to show up strong on election day, dropped 6 percentage points compared with 1994, even while those who defined themselves as Christian conservatives stayed about the same.
Taken as a whole, the polling data raise knotty questions about whether it is now Republicans, and not just Democrats, who face serious challenges in their ability to successfully mobilize their voter base.
Democrats launched an unprecedented effort this year to target black voters, in part because polling data showed it was these voters who were most likely to be angry at congressional Republicans' handling of sex and perjury charges against President Clinton. That effort appears to have worked. In some states, black turnout stayed even, but those voters returned solidly to the Democratic ticket. The percentage of blacks who voted for Democrats jumped from 81 percent in 1996 to 88 percent in this election.
So even in North Carolina, where black turnout was about the same as it was in 1994, blacks voted 90 percent for Democratic nominee John Edwards, who defeated Sen. Lauch Faircloth in a close race.
In other states, black turnout was up markedly. In Maryland, blacks made up a total of 21 percent of the total turnout, compared with 12 percent in 1994. Those votes provided Democratic incumbent Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who had been running barely ahead of Republican rival Ellen R. Sauerbrey in most pre-election polls, with a surprisingly lopsided win.
No state saw a bigger increase than Georgia, where blacks made up 29 percent of the total turnout, compared with 16 percent in 1994. That surge in the black vote helped gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes (D) defeat Guy Millner (R), who had held a small lead in the polls for weeks. Democrats won almost every other statewide race and picked up one seat in both chambers of the legislature in a state that had been becoming increasingly Republican.
And in Illinois, the percentage of blacks who voted rose from 12 percent in 1994 to 18 percent this year -- enough to make that state's Senate and governor's races unexpectedly competitive, but not enough to deliver victories to either incumbent Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun or gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Poshard.
"There is not a pundit on either side of the aisle that isn't saying the black vote did this [for Democrats]," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who helped organize the get-out-the-vote effort. "This time stands out like no other time in memory."
The Hispanic vote also made a critical difference in some key states. The proportion of Hispanics casting ballots in California increased from 9 percent of voters in 1994 to 14 percent this year, with about seven in 10 of these Latinos casting votes for Democrats.
Another problem for Republicans was that the proportion of voters who described themselves as moderates increased from 45 percent in 1994 to 50 percent this year. At the same time, the number who label themselves conservative dropped from 37 percent in 1994 to 31 this year. The trend was exacerbated by the fact that 54 percent of moderates voted for Democrats this year, compared with 43 percent for Republicans.
Tuesday's results also suggest that the Religious Right may have been less effective in combining with other voters to form winning coalitions. Democrats had the most success against Republican opponents they were able to target as extreme, as Glendening did against Sauerbrey, and Gray Davis did with Dan Lungren in California's gubernatorial race. "It is fairly clear that religious conservatives are fairly powerful in controlling the party apparatus in certain states and in controlling certain local elections," said said James Davison Hunter, a University of Virginia sociologist who studies modern political culture. "But in statewide races, the politicians who lost were the ones most ideologically conservative."
Recent national elections have taught Democrats, and now Republicans, that voters are committed to moderation -- and quick to punish the party they see straying too far from the political middle.
"One way to look at this election is the revenge of the moderates," said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron. "Moderates in both parties did quite well." And even when it was a liberal who won, like Sen. Barbara Boxer in California or Charles E. Schumer in New York, "it's because they were able to portray their opponents as extremists."
Social conservatives were dismayed that the GOP didn't extend its power in Tuesday's elections. And some acknowledged that the party is having problems with moderate voters.
This year, Republicans "had no message," said Republican strategist Greg Mueller. "Their message was Clinton. When they turned the message toward Clinton, the Democrats were talking about Social Security, education and health care."
Stanford University political scientist David Brady argues that both the 1994 and 1998 campaigns were about the same thing: Bill Clinton and his values. The key difference was that in 1994, it was Clinton's political values that Republicans put on trial and not his personal moral standards.
Four years ago, "the whole issue was Bill Clinton and not the Contract With America that fired up Republicans." he said. "It was about his political values: It was about gays in the military, health care, things like that -- Americans thought we had elected a centrist and instead he turned out to be a liberal."
On Tuesday, Brady said, Republicans tried once again to make Clinton the issue. But this time it wasn't his political values but his morals that Republicans attempted to put on trial.
It didn't work. While exit polls confirmed that voters hated his morals, they loved his policies. This year, it was Republican political values that were out of touch with many voters. Brady said the representatives who lost appeared to be too conservative for their districts.
"What happened is that there was a slight swing back," Brady said. "The Republicans who lost were too ideological, too far to the right. There was an adjustment back toward the middle."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
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