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Split government not expected to get much done, election watchers say
STANFORD -- Despite election eve rhetoric, don't expect major reforms out of Washington until after the year 2000, two Stanford political scientists said after analyzing last week's congressional and presidential election results.
Both parties would be wise to compromise but are not likely to find much common ground on major issues, especially not on campaign finance reform or Social Security and Medicare funding cuts, said David Brady of the Graduate School of Business and Douglas Rivers of the political science department. Both are also Hoover fellows.
The 1996 congressional election results can be read as confirmation of 1994 results, which first suggested "the Republicans are now the majority party," Brady said. But he added that "party identification isn't as strong as it used to be."
Brady said that in discussing the election results with John Ferejohn, a Stanford political scientist on sabbatical at New York University, both agreed that "it's more possible for a shock to flip control of the Congress today than it was 10 or 12 years ago."
Rivers is not yet willing to say the Republicans are the majority party. Republicans retained control of both houses, but "there is not a working majority for either party, and the presidential election, to my mind, exposed weaknesses in the Republicans' presidential prospects" for the future, Rivers said.
"The South is now a more important constituency for Republicans than two years ago," he said, with the Republicans having picked up five more House seats there. "The way a political party works makes it difficult for a strong constituency to have its position overridden, so that to some extent, the religious conservatives in the Republican Party are going to be able to veto moderate presidential candidates who would have more appeal in key areas such as California and the Midwest."
Rivers cited abortion as a prime problem for the party. Republican congressional candidates in the majority of districts that are pro-abortion can cast themselves as more moderate than the party as a whole, but a more moderate candidate, such as Christine Whitman or Colin Powell, is not likely to win the party's presidential nomination, he said.
Brady and Rivers agree that election results indicate both the South and the less populous mountain states are now solidly Republican territory, the Northeast is solidly Democratic, and the West Coast Oregon and Washington more clearly than California less solidly Democratic. That leaves the Midwest as the biggest battleground in future presidential races.
The Democrats are likely to lose seats in 1998, Brady said, because in 48 midterm elections in the 20th century, the incumbent president's party has lost seats all but once, and because more Democratic retirements can be expected. "People like John Dingell who hung around in hopes that they could win the majority back won't find it much fun to be in the minority again."
Clinton, like any second-term president, only has about a year to get something accomplished, Brady said, and he may have even less time because of the low ratings of trust that voters gave him in exit polls. "He's on a foundation of sand. If the economy takes a little downturn, if the investigations [of the White House's possession of FBI files or Democratic Party fundraising] crank up and show us some misgivings, public opinion will move quickly against him."
The Republican Congress also has to be cautious because "while a lot of those incumbents won, their margin was razor thin," Brady said. "A lot of them were campaigning on what they did in the last couple months getting the minimum wage through, passing the welfare bill," rather than on their earlier efforts to pass the Contract with America.
"The results suggest the American public doesn't want to see a bunch of acrimonious stuff," Brady said. "That doesn't mean they will get a lot done in a bipartisan way, but they won't be as acrimonious."
Felicia Pratto, a psychologist who studies political attitudes, said her California exit poll sample suggested Dole voters and Clinton voters are indeed divided on issues, making compromises difficult.
Pratto added that "the media, historians and political scientists have been fond of saying compromise at the middle is what Americans want, but that implies we all kind of believe in the same thing, and gaps like the gender gap [in voting] mean we do not."
Her exit poll of 173 voters in Northern and Southern California wasn't a random sample, she said, but showed that Dole voters were far more likely than Clinton voters to vote for Proposition 209 and against reinstituting the highest income tax bracket in California. Clinton and Nader voters went in the opposite direction, especially on income taxes. Since Proposition 209 passed, she said, "there had to be some slippage of Clinton voters on that issue statewide."
Narrow margins for Republican freshman incumbents, Rivers said, mean that "people dislike stalemate and disagreement" less than they dislike elected officials not getting things they supported accomplished.
Campaign finance reform is one issue where no meaningful changes can be expected, Rivers said, "because the parties' positions are diametrically opposed." But he added that the election "provided some evidence that money is not a decisive factor. The AFL-CIO spent $35 million trying to knock off Republican incumbents and got six [seats]."
Organized labor targeted major contributions for televised videos in 29 of 71 freshman Republicans' districts, Brady estimated. "They defeated six of 29 in those districts, and in others they got six of 42. You might say six of 29 is better than six of 42, and it is a little better, but not very much, and it was damned expensive about $3 million for each member elected."
Using campaign finance data available since the 1970s, Brady, Rivers and Hoover fellow John Cogan estimate that the better financed candidate in a given congressional race gets a 1.5 to 3 percent edge among voters. In looking at other election data since 1846, he said, they calculate that freshman incumbents get a "sophomore surge" of 5 to 6 percent in their favor due to their greater exposure to voters and greater ability to collect campaign funds.
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