Amid Election Apathy, Parties Bet on Core Voters
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 7, 1998; Page A01
The prospect of a high-stakes but low-turnout election for the House and Senate has both parties, their candidates and key interest groups scrambling to spur their own most reliable voters to the polls on Nov. 3.
Most signs suggest that the demographics of a shrunken electorate, if it turns out that way, will favor Republicans. The higher the income and education levels, the likelier people are to vote. In addition, recent polls indicate that the highest levels of interest in the outcome can be found among those angry at President Clinton and conservative religious voters placing top priority on moral values. Women, who have tended to favor Democrats, are more likely to stay home.
As a consequence, fewer and fewer Democrats cling to the notion of salvaging their once-bright hopes for gains in the House, and most are focused more on avoiding losses on the scale of the 1994 rout.
Faced with the prospect of an all-time low turnout, campaigns from both sides now are worrying mainly about those people likely to cast a ballot. Some analysts predict that the number of eligible voters who actually vote could drop beneath the 36 percent seen in two of the last three midterm elections.
"Who cares what every adult thinks?" asked a Republican strategist. "It's totally not germane to this election."
In the next eight weeks, phone banks and targeted mailings will be the weapons of choice. Expensive TV ads may be wasted because most viewers won't show up to vote.
The battle between Republicans seeking to convert fragile majorities into a firm command of Congress and Democrats struggling to hold their own will in all likelihood be determined by tiny slices of the electorate. Slight upticks or downturns in the participation of such groups as Christian conservatives, union members, middle-aged white men and single working women can make all the difference.
Older voters also loom disproportionately large in a low-turnout year, and Democrats are hoping that the turmoil in the stock market will enhance their ability to make bogeymen of Republicans who advocate "privatizing" Social Security and investing those funds in stocks. Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO political director, said, "I'm not sure that issue is enough to offset all the pro-Republican voting demographics, but if we handle it right, it has the potential to be as strong for us as Medicare" was in past campaigns.
Democrats also hope the striking success of organized labor in turning out voters from union households in the California primary, when an anti-union initiative was on the ballot, can be repeated nationally this fall.
But they fear the focus on President Clinton's admission of an improper relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky may block their ability to get through to voters on Social Security, education and HMO reform their favorite issues.
Republicans, in turn, are moving aggressively to turn the Clinton scandal into a powerful weapon to build turnout among those angry at the president. A poll released Friday by Dan Lungren, the Republican candidate for governor of California, said that among likely voters, 10 percent more Republicans than Democrats express a strong interest in the coming election.
The prizes for those who can boost turnouts of core supporters or suppress it among hostile constituencies can be enormous.
In Washington, the election will decide whether Republicans expand their shaky 11-vote margin in the House into a solid majority and add enough Senate seats to reach the magic number of 60, which allows them firm control of the Senate.
In individual states, the political stakes are even larger. The winners of the 36 gubernatorial elections and the legislative battles will after the 2000 census be in a position to determine how the lines are drawn for congressional and legislative districts throughout the first decade of the new millennium. In addition, they will be in a position to provide organized support for their party's presidential nominee in 2000.
Yet few potential voters seem to care enough about the outcome to trek to the polls or request an absentee ballot. Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, said, "Unless there is a substantial economic downturn that might scare people enough to get them to the polls, we are probably looking at a historically low turnout."
So political activists of all stripes are plotting how to drag people out to vote.
Randy Tate, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, said his organization will be manning voter registration tables in the vestibules of thousands of churches on Sunday, Sept. 27. Five weeks later, on the Sunday before Election Day, millions of voter guides will be distributed in those same churches. And the next day, automated phone calls will deliver a message in Tate's voice urging members to vote using a system sophisticated enough to wait for an answering machine and leave a message if no one is home.
Tate's group is working in a receptive climate. Republican polling already shows high levels of interest in the election among self-described religious conservatives and voters who say they attend church frequently.
While 50 percent of all voters in GOP surveys claim to have a high interest in the election, well over 60 percent of religious conservatives and those who say their more important concern is moral values claim the election is important to them.
If those voters turn out, the results will hurt the Democrats: Among voters saying moral values are their top priority, the "generic" vote is 75 to 15 in favor of Republican congressional candidates over Democrats.
At the same time, polls suggest that women, a key Democratic constituency, are likely to turn out in smaller numbers in November, in part because of the White House sex scandal.
"Since the president's speech [on Aug. 17 acknowledging an improper relationship], we've seen a slight uptick in interest in the election . . . and most important, among most likely voters we have seen a very attractive movement on the generic vote," GOP pollster Bill McInturff said. "All this is coupled with a president dropping to an all-time low in terms of personal esteem to make the political environment Republican-friendly."
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said, "The spotlight is resolutely focused on the president's problems. It becomes far more difficult to set an alternative agenda."
Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, who is helping direct a number of House contests, said the Lewinsky controversy is "the elephant sitting in the living room."
The bigger problem, Fenn said, is "the turnout question and what the bottom line is. I'm not very optimistic about that for the Democrats, to be blunt." Fenn cited suburban women and Jewish voters as Democratic constituencies that may see larger declines in turnout than average.
One hope Fenn held out for Democrats "may be the African American community," perhaps the strongest pro-Clinton constituency. "There could be a fairly serious backlash against the Republicans and that could help the Democrats," Fenn said.
A more tangible asset for the Democrats lies in the growing prowess of labor's grass-roots machine. A massive effort in the June California primary boosted union households' share of the electorate to 35 percent up from 29 percent in 1994, according to the Los Angeles Times poll. Similar gains have been registered by labor in some special House races.
"Magically, we have learned that when we talk to union members on the phone or face to face in the workplace and get them information, they vote and they vote for the candidates and positions we have endorsed," said Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO political chief.
As a result, labor is shifting its tactics and resources. In 1996, according to informed sources, two of every three union political dollars went into media ads. This year, two-thirds of the money will go into grass-roots organizing, aimed not at the general public but at union members and their families.
But labor will not be alone. Activist groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Rifle Association, which generally supports Republicans, also will be pounding their members with exhortations to vote. Dennis Whitfield, vice president of the NFIB, said it plans "at least 2 million contacts with our members between Labor Day and Election Day." And then Whitfield voiced what has become the mantra for virtually all political strategists this year: "Any party or organization that doesn't concentrate on getting out its base this year is crazy. We're sure concentrating on ours."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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