In the House, a Wary Eye on the Polls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 1998; Page A18
Most House members say today's vote on a resolution to open an impeachment inquiry against President Clinton is a matter of personal conscience. But they are nervously monitoring a flurry of public opinion polls in an attempt to gauge the partisan fallout of their actions.
Today's vote could shape the final weeks of this year's midterm campaigns. Will the election become a referendum on Clinton's behavior or a referendum on how Congress is handling the issue of impeachment? The difference, if drawn that clearly, could be crucial in determining the election results.
Congressional Democrats remain on the defensive, fearing Clinton's problems could translate into major losses in House and Senate seats. But in the two weeks since the House Judiciary Committee released the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony, Republicans have seen erosion in what had been a growing political advantage.
Until then, Republicans were benefiting from public anger over Clinton's admission that he lied about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, in large part because loyal Democrats appeared more demoralized and less likely to vote in November.
Since the release of the videotape, however, private GOP and Democratic polls have seen a modest Democratic rebound, in large part because loyal Democrats have become more energized -- and therefore more likely to vote -- by what they see as a partisan Republican effort to embarrass the president and launch an open-ended investigation that could drag on for months. Republicans acknowledge erosion in their support, but say Democrats face even bigger problems if they are perceived as working to help Clinton avoid serious punishment for his behavior.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff said this week a recent poll for the Republican National Committee showed that Democrats had become more energized in the past two weeks. But yesterday he said he would have "no comment" on whether his most recent private poll showed that Republicans were hurt in the wake of Monday's vote in the Judiciary Committee on the resolution for an open-ended impeachment investigation with no time limits.
McInturff added that whatever short-term improvement Democrats may see right now, the trend still heavily favors Republicans. "This is going to snap back and it's going to snap back in a Republican direction," he said.
Republican and Democratic pollsters are attempting to measure who may vote in November and what may motivate those voters in the final weeks of the campaign. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said yesterday, "Small changes in the mood of the public could have a major impact on turnout and the outcome" of the elections.
The changing political environment has made the choice for Democrats today more difficult than it appeared to be a month ago. Then, it was a simple matter of putting personal survival ahead of party loyalty, and a vote against Clinton appeared to be the safest choice.
Many Democrats still believe that, which is why party leaders were struggling yesterday to hold the line against defections. But some Democratic strategists such as Greenberg and Celinda Lake say the party's success in November may depend in part on how united House Democrats are on today's impeachment vote, even though that seems to run counter to what House Democrats believe.
Politically, the White House argument that the charges in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report do not rise to the level of impeachment, and therefore there should be no inquiry, appears to be a nonstarter with the public.
Greenberg and Lake, in a poll for Emily's List, found a bipartisan consensus in support of a congressional inquiry. But they said Democratic candidates could be hurt if they support the open-ended investigation favored by Republicans, rather than a focused and time-limited inquiry along the lines of the alternative advanced by House Democratic leaders.
In one case, the survey matched an unnamed Democratic candidate who supports a 30-day impeachment inquiry against a Republican who favors an open-ended inquiry. The Democrat had an 18-point advantage. But in a choice between a Republican and a Democrat who both support an open-ended inquiry along the lines of today's House resolution, there is no advantage for either candidate.
The main reason the Democratic advantage was erased, the pollsters said, was the loss of support among Democratic voters. The erosion was particularly acute, they said, among many groups of women voters, such as older women, single women and minority women. "I think Democrats who vote for the [GOP] impeachment inquiry will pay a high price with Democratic base voters," Greenberg said at a news conference.
Greenberg and Lake briefed House leaders on their poll yesterday, urging them to find ways to shape today's vote as a partisan fight over how Congress is handling the issue. If they cannot do that, the pollsters warned, the public could refocus on Clinton's behavior, which would hurt Democratic prospects Nov. 3.
Republicans countered with polls they said showed their candidates with a healthy advantage among the voters most likely to turn out in November. GOP pollster Linda DiVall said her most recent survey for the National Republican Congressional Committee showed Republicans holding a small lead over Democrats among registered voters, but a significantly larger advantage among voters who say they are extremely interested in the election. She said the survey showed that hard-core Clinton opponents are still more numerous and more likely to vote than are hard-core Clinton supporters.
"The more they [Democrats] make this partisan, the more they think they can win," DiVall said. "But the districts they need to win are moderate voters, suburbanites, who are not dismissing [Clinton's] behavior."
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