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Election '96 not likely to clarify political shift, experts say
STANFORD -- National elections on Nov. 5 aren't likely to clarify whether America has moved to the right or if the country is in for a long period of political indecisiveness.
That, at least, was the consensus among the professionals, both Democrats and Republicans, who met at the Hoover Institution on April 18 to share their observations on election season with about 150 guests of the noted conservative think tank. Some of the panelists said they believed a permanent political realignment is under way but admitted the evidence at this stage is mixed. Others were inclined to think the country is in for a long period with no clear mandate from the voters. No one suggested a return to the New Deal-Great Society era is imminent.
A political realignment would mean the Republicans would dominate the political terrain the way the Democrats did between 1932 and 1994, when they set the agenda in Washington and state capitols while Republicans mostly reacted, speakers said. The last realigning elections occurred in 1894-96 and in 1930-32.
These shifts "came around about once a generation, so we began to look for one in the '60s," said Morris Fiorina, professor of government at Harvard. Political scientists then, he said, "tended to regard divided governments as a transition period between two stable systems."
But since 1952, American voters have increasingly split their votes between Republicans and Democrats so that by 1972 about a quarter of them were voting for a candidate from one party for president and a candidate from the other party for the House of Representatives. (That compares to an estimated 5 to 6 percent of voters in the 1920s.) Political scientists, Fiorina and others said, began to look for a new pattern of divided government.
As a result, the 1994 Republican "sweep" of Congress and many state houses caught the political science profession by surprise, according to William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard. Kristol and others ticked off the reasons a sweep wasn't supposed to happen: The media had grown stronger and political parties, weaker. Elections for Congress and state legislatures had became "local" rather than national, ideological affairs.
Evidence for interpreting 1994 as a realignment, Kristol said, includes the fact that the campaign debate was highly ideological, and 80 percent of polled voters who said they were conservatives voted Republican, compared to two-thirds of conservatives in the previous 15 years. Liberals did not also move their votes, he said, which normally happens in response to a crisis, such as Watergate.
Stanford's John Ferejohn, the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science and a senior fellow at Hoover, said he believes that the 1994 election was a nationally focused referendum on the Democratic agenda, because the Democrats who strongly supported Clinton on the budget vote, crime bill and gays in the military policy were hit hardest. There were signs of a referendum as early as 1980, he said, but the Republicans didn't take advantage of it.
Since 1978, he said, there has been a steady decline in the number of voters who say in polls that they view their incumbent congressman as someone who can or would help them with a government problem, regardless of party affiliation. The shift away from automatic support of incumbents, he said he believed, is related to provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which narrowed the ideological spread of the Democratic party's agenda. "Southern Democrats became ideologically more like Northern Democrats," he said, "and the voters eventually responded."
Using data on House district voting patterns in 1994 and the Clinton vote by district in 1992, Stanford's David Brady and Harvard's Fiorina predicted Republicans will retain control of the House, even if Clinton wins the presidency. Brady, a professor of political science and a senior fellow at Hoover, said that was because Clinton had not been strong in the districts where races were close in 1994, and it would take a national swing of 10 percent more votes for Clinton this year than in 1992 in order for Democrats to pick up enough House seats to take control.
Most speakers admitted they were not sure the Republicans could convert a largely negative vote against the Democrats in 1994 to a positive vote for Republicans in 1996, as Franklin Roosevelt did for the Democrats in 1932. The polls are showing substantial numbers of Americans don't like House Speaker Newt Gingrich and that Clinton came out ahead in the opinion polls in the battle with Gingrich over the federal budget.
It may be that "voters have a preference for a divided government" even though they say in polls that they are unhappy with gridlock in Washington, said Douglas Rivers, Stanford political scientist and Hoover senior fellow. "The problem for Bob Dole is, can he convince voters that what he wants to do is something they would actually like to happen?" Rivers said.
Fiorina, the author of a book called Divided Government, predicted the next few decades will be a return to conditions of the 1870s and '80s, which historians have dubbed "the era of indecision." From 1874 to 1894, Fiorina said, third parties cropped up and only one president was able to muster more than half the popular vote.
Pollsters and political scientists at the Hoover sessions said the potential entry of Ross Perot's party into the race is a "wild card" for 1996. Even though Perot hurt George Bush more than Clinton in 1992, the polls this year do not clearly indicate which candidate he would hurt more. His base of support seems to be shifting, especially to younger women, a group that otherwise supports Clinton.
Even without Perot, the experts were uncertain Dole will close the gap in the polls with Clinton, a gap that is generally larger this time of year because the challenger has gone through a primary fight and the incumbent has not.
Republican pollsters Glen Bolger, whose firm, Public Opinion Strategies, was fired by the Dole campaign, and Rex Elsass, of Strategy Group, said they believed Dole should spend the $10 million necessary to challenge Clinton in California. But Democratic pollster William Carrick, of Morris and Carrick, said Dole lacks the optimistic outlook of Reagan, which appeals to Californians, and that to be successful in California, Dole will need to "get a divorce from Pete Wilson."
The pollsters, along with Kristol, seemed to agree that the Republicans made a mistake by allowing most of their agenda in the Contract with America to be subsumed in a battle over balancing the budget. They also considered it a mistake to tackle Medicare reform without first having a Republican in the White House. "People are more concerned about the family budget than the federal budget," said Elsass. "The real debate is about who provides hope," he said.
The 1994 election results "made the Republican Party a national party intending to be a governing party with its own agenda," said John Bunzel, a Democrat and Hoover senior research fellow emeritus. If the party fails to take control of the White House this year, he said, it may be because the party "lacks the maturity to govern. It may be incapable of growing out of its protest mold."
But others said that it may be impossible for anyone to govern. Yale political scientist David Mayhew said both parties have built a "small cemetery of crusades" in the last eight years. "Neither party has possessed a clear, ambitious legislative program," he said, partly because public opinion changes quickly, and partly because procedural hurdles, such as the Senate's filibuster process, make it difficult to write new laws.
The Republicans, he said, may have missed their only opportunity to pass welfare reform six months ago, just as the Democrats missed their opportunity to create national health insurance in 1993. Neither Clinton nor Dole will "be able to hit the ground running the way Reagan did in 1981," said Mayhew, who is a fellow this year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. "What we are probably seeing for the next decade or so is a time of close party competition."
The Republican Party has become more like Europe's Christian Democrats - "the party of the upscale and the religious," said UCLA political scientist John Petrocik. American politics in the future, he predicted, may be less about economic welfare and more about moral issues. Voters who attend church regularly increasingly identify with the Republican Party, and among those who don't go to church, a plurality are Democrats, Petrocik said, which is an indication of the breakdown in the Democrats' former coalitions.
But election results are not easy to interpret, he cautioned, and the Republicans may have made the same mistake in 1994 that Clinton made in 1992 - viewing the election results as a mandate for the issues they discussed in the campaign.
Americans are more polarized about whether they want more or less government, Fiorina said, with four of 10 voters in 1992 saying government is too vigorous and four of 10 saying it is not doing enough. "My hunch is that the consensus has broken down on how you get there - what are the tools?"
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