Republican candidates paid a price for President Bush's budget deal and Democrats were hurt by declines in big-city black voting, according to analyses of the midterm election completed yesterday. Millions of voters apparently expressed their anger at politicians of both parties by staying away from the polls.
On the budget question, exit polls showed Democrats and Republicans ran essentially even among those who approved the Bush-engineered pact with Congress, but Democrats got a 5 to 4 advantage among those who disapproved.
But many more turned their backs on members of both parties and on incumbents and challengers alike. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said the indicated overall turnout rate of 36.4 percent matched the previous low of 1986 and showed that the long-term decline in voting participation, now three decades old, is continuing. An estimate by Voter Research and Surveys said turnout actually fell to 35 percent.
Citing voting increases from the previous off-year levels in the District of Columbia and states such as Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Carolina, which had highly publicized contests, Gans said, "People will turn out when there is something important to decide." But in general, he added, "the anger people clearly feel about politics was not reflected in the choices they were offered, so they stayed at home."
The Pacific Coast states, Hawaii and Alaska all had significant declines in voting, even though all except Washington had close statewide battles. The California governorship, the number one political prize in the nation this year, drew about 4.5 percent less of the voting-age population than the contest four years ago, even though liberalized absentee voting was used by far more people than before.
Gans noted that in several states more people voted in lightly contested races involving popular incumbents than in those same states' close battles, where both contenders had been scarred by negative charges. In Oklahoma and Kansas, for example, more people voted in the nominal Senate races than in the tough gubernatorial contests.
As analysts sorted through the voting pattern, negativism -- expressed in lower turnouts and in exit poll explanations of voting -- was evident. Exit polls in Massachusetts, for example, found that 36 percent of those who voted for Republican William F. Weld, the winner of the governorship, said they did so primarily to stop his Democratic opponent, John R. Silber.
In Illinois, Democrat Neil Hartigan, who lost the governor's race by fewer than 100,000 votes, was crippled by a record low off-year turnout in his home city of Chicago. The apathy was particularly acute in the city's predominantly black precincts, where voters had been presented with what turned out to be a bewildering last-minute appeal from an all-black slate running as the Harold Washington Party, named after the late Democratic mayor.
"There's no question that the major cause of Hartigan's defeat was the low turnout in Chicago," said Jim Strong, a spokesman for the Hartigan campaign. Winning Republican Jim Edgar got an exceptionally high 20 percent of the black vote, but low turnout was the main reason Hartigan's plurality in the city was 260,000 fewer votes than the Democrat in another close but losing gubernatorial race received in 1982.
In Michigan, defeated Gov. James J. Blanchard (D) received 35,000 fewer votes in Detroit than he had in 1982 and lost statewide by 19,000 votes to state Sen. John Engler (R). Some observers blamed the decline on a lack of effort by Detroit Mayor Coleman P. Young (D), with whom Blanchard has had cool relations, but a Blanchard spokeswoman said the governor "is not blaming Detroit or the mayor for what happened." Chicago and Detroit have lost population in the last decade.
The election post-mortems also seemed likely to fuel Republican complaints about Bush's budget agreement with the congressional Democrats. A nationwide poll of 9,444 voters Tuesday by Voter Research and Surveys (VRS) suggested that if the agreement hurt anyone it was the Republicans, even though most House Republicans opposed the plan while most Democrats voted for it.
According to the survey, conducted for a consortium of television networks and newspapers, including The Washington Post, voters disapproved of the plan by 51 to 42 percent.
Those who approved the plan split their votes in House races almost evenly, with 47 percent voting for Democrats and 45 percent backing Republicans. But among those who disapproved, the Democrats had a clear advantage, 50 to 39 percent.
Republicans feared that Bush's declining popularity would hurt them Tuesday, but the GOP may have been hurt at least as much by the difficulty of translating support for a president into votes for his party's candidates.
The poll found that those who cast ballots Tuesday approved of Bush's handling of his job, 57 to 39 percent. Democratic House candidates fared well in part because they won a third of the vote from those who approved of Bush.
This pattern held up in Senate races, according to VRS polls in individual states. In Iowa, for example, Sen. Tom Harkin (D), a harsh critic of the president, defeated Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R) by winning those who opposed Bush by 4 to 1 and losing among those who supported him by less than 2 to 1. Other staunch Bush opponents did even better among the president's sympathisers. In Illinois, Sen. Paul Simon (D) defeated Rep. Lynn Martin (R) among Bush approvers by 54 to 46 percent.
Bush had particular trouble in transferring his popularity to Republican gubernatorial candidates for whom he campaigned hard. In Texas, victorious Democrat Ann Richards -- who once said the president was born with "a silver foot in his mouth" -- got a third of the vote among those who said they approved of Bush, despite the president's work for Republican Clayton Williams.
Staff writer Gwen Ifill and researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.