A week ago, Outlook invited the White House to respond to an article by Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell envisioning a possible Democratic landslide on Nov. 2. The White House provided the following response by Lyn Nofziger, former chief political aide to President Reagan.
I BELIEVE SOME OF the best responses to Pat Cadell's claim in last Sunday's Outlook of a massive Democratic gain in the House of Representatives can be found on the front page of the same day's Post. As Paul Taylor and David Broder wrote, "The strength of Republican candidates in many marginal races, the girth of the GOP bankroll, and the absence of a compelling Democratic alternative to Reaganomics has led professionals in both parties to project 'normal' Republican losses in the House."
Caddell and other Democratic strategists are now predicting they may win as many as 40 seats in the House and possibly retake the Senate. Public opinion polls can be interpreted to indicate similar Democratic gains, and economic-historical models, such as the one developed by Yale's Edward Tufte, say the number could range from 40 to 70.
One of the major reasons I believe Caddell is wrong is because he is looking at the congressional elections on a national level, while it is far more accurate to view them as several hundred local elections. The concept of the '82 mid-term elections as some national referendum on the president and Reaganomics simply doesn't hold water in the American body politic.
Unlike Europe -- where the executive and legislature are one and the same and parliamentary elections determine who runs the country -- elections in this country for president and for Congress have always been separate in the minds of the voters.
Voters perceive their U.S. representatives as distinct individuals, apart from president or party. Survey research has always shown that congressmen and congressional candidates shape their own identities and run as individuals, not as Democrats or Republicans. Thus the contradiction of voters telling pollsters they plan to vote Democratic, and then responding favorably to their local Republican congressman.
For a wide variety of reasons, I believe Caddell and others are definitely wrong in predicting a possible loss of 40 seats. I think the bottom line for the Republicans is that if we lose fewer than 20 seats, the elections must be considered a GOP victory. If we lose 20 to 30 seats, it will be a wash, and if we lose more than 30, we will have suffered a defeat.
Modern political history shows that the kind of mid-term landslide Caddell forecasts has occurred against the party in control of the White House after six years or more -- 1938, 1946, 1958, 1966, and 1974. Even if a president is unpopular and economic conditions are bleak, voters at the two-year point distinctly remember why they turned out the other party in the previous election.
At this time in 1970, for example, Richard Nixon was not a popular president, the Vietnam War was at its height, and unemployment was on the rise. Nevertheless, Republicans lost only 12 House seats and won a Senate seat. While voter animosity toward the party in power always sets in eventually, it has always taken more than two years for it to do so in any significant way. At this stage, voters are still willing to "give the guy a chance."
In contrast to this reality, Caddell advises Democratic candidates to take the president head-on this year. If they continue to take his advice, they may be in for a big surprise. National surveys continue to show the president to be personally popular. In addition, in four of the five major problem areas, his economic program is clearly working. Only unemployment is not going well, and the Democrats seem to be stacking all of their chips on this one indicator.
But in so doing, they offer no fresh alternatives to the president's program. If all they have to offer is a return to the big spending and high taxes that voters rejected in 1980, they will be sorely disappointed in 1982. The voters are far more sophisticated than Caddell and company seem to realize.
Another point is that more than ever, sitting GOP congressmen are difficult to dislodge. As Congressional Quarterly recently pointed out,"House Republicans went into 1974 with dozens of aging members, who had grown complacemt with time. Strong Democratic challengers in a tumultuous year simply blew them away." Now, more than half of the Republican members in the House have been elected just since 1976. Unlike 1974, Republican lawmakers defending their seats this year are by and large aggressive young incumbents, men and women who began preparing for reelection from the day they won their first terms.
Republicans assumed they would recapture many seats in 1976 from the so-called "Watergate babies" elected from heavily Republican districts two years before. Yet even with Gerald Ford carrying the normal Republican vote and taking 27 states in a close loss to Jimmy Carter, only two members of the Democratic class of '74 went down. Why wasn't the mortality rate higher among their ranks? Obviously, it was because their constituent services and virtual year-round campaigning overcame the conservative nature of their districts. I am convinced this will be the case for the supposedly vulnerable Republican class of '80.
Aside from historical patterns and the nature of the Republican incumbents, redistricting is a factor that counts against Caddell's scenario of a major GOP setback.
As a result of congressional reapportionment, 21 states gained or lost seats after 1980, compared to only 14 after 1970. Accordingly, an estimated 20 percent of the population now finds itself in a congressional district with either a new incumbent of no incumbent at all. Realizing how difficult it is to unseat incumbents (something the Democrats also know well), Republican efforts are primarily concentrated on these 58 open seats -- some created by redistricting, others by retirements, death or primary defeat. Of particular priority to the GOP are the 17 new seats in the Sun Belt, where the nature of the districts works to our advantage.
In addition, for the first time the White House has an Office of Political Affairs, which I had a hand in creating in 1981. We believed at the time that it was important to centralize White House political activities so the administration could streamline activities and marshall its assets more effectively. The office, now under the able leadership of Ed Rollins, coordinates the efforts of the administration and the Republican committees on behalf of GOP candidates.
The key to success in winning a lot of elections at once is to identify marginal races and channel resourses into those close contests. I remember that 38 House races in 1980 were won or lost by 2 percent of the vote -- and that we won just 19 of those. This year, with the White House monitoring all the races, I am confident that many more GOP candidates in tough races will get the last-minute help that will put them over the top.
Another major boost is that President Reagan has taken an active role on the campaign trial, making several successful visits on behalf of Republican candidates, conducting selected television broadcasts for key office seekers, and signing letters of endorsement for numerous GOP House and Senate hopefuls. Vice President Bush has been the most vigorous campaigner, logging 78,000 miles this year, appearing in 44 states, and racking up seven times as many appearances by election day as Walter Mondale did in '78. Other high-ranking administration officials have also been heavily utilitzed.
As Taylor and Broder pointed out in The Post, money is a strong factor in favor of the GOP. Much has been written about the Republican financial edge, with GOP candidates outraising their Democratic foes sometimes by as much as 8 to 1. Certainly the continued growth of business-oriented Political Action Committess (PACs) -- a progeny of Democrat-orchestrated election law reforms in the wake of Watergate -- has benefited the Republicans.
Even the money available to the Democratic Party is not going to the struggling candidates desperately in need of it but, as The New York Times recently reported, "to many Democratic incumbents so scared by 1980 results that they began building up immense campaign war chests."
The lion's share of PAC money has always gone and still goes to incumbents. As a result, marginal districts are currently being contested by challlengers who originally planned $500,000 budgets and are now struggling to make it over the $100,000 mark. Finally, the business community seems increasingly aware that continued Democratic control of the House is to its detriment. Thus the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's recent list of 100 "opportunity races" where it believes business PACs could use their funds most effectively. All 100 candidates backed by the Chamber are Republicans.
Altogether, the three Republican committees have raised $161 million, compared to only $25 million for their three Democratic counterparts. But the image Democratic orators create of a Republican Party bankrolled by a few "fat cats" is an outright falsehood, as 81 percent of all GOP contributions are of less than $100, with the average being just $26.
If anything, the Democrats are the party of the big donor, with 89 percent of their contributions being greater than $200. As The Post's Robert G. Kaiser wrote, the Republican edge in fund-raising comes from "the ordinary folks . . . they beat the Democrats hollow in this regard."
Caddell was correct on pointing out that there will be a number of sudden shifts between now and Election Day. In the last few elections, as many as 45 percent of the voters have make up their minds in the final three weeks. If this hold true in '82, if the Democrats are seen circling over the 11 million unemployed like vultures, and if the Republican blitz imploring Americans to "stay the course" is effective, the Democrats could be in for a rude awakening. Volatility cuts both ways.
Republican losses in the House in '82? Very probable. But a setback of landslide proportions? Probably out of the question. If the GOP loses fewer than 30 seats, it will have done well.