Backlash '98?

After dreading November's elections, some Democrats now believe they will benefit from an anti-impeachment voter rebellion.


Joan Walsh
October 22, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Democrat Jay Inslee says the best idea in his uphill campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Rick White came not from pollsters or pundits but from voters. The aspiring congressman from suburban Seattle made national news this week when he embraced the very issue experts had warned Democrats to run away from: He broadcast TV ads attacking his Republican opponent for supporting an unlimited impeachment inquiry against President Clinton.

"I was hearing the same message at the farmer's markets and the ferry docks: People feel strongly that we need to get back to business, and beyond impeachment," Inslee says. So he overruled his campaign brain trust, which had opposed using the impeachment issue, and jumped onto the airwaves with a TV spot declaring, "Rick White and Newt Gingrich shouldn't be dragging us through this. Enough is enough." Nationally, pollsters and political experts predicted Democrats would rush to television studios with impeachment ads if Inslee's gambit paid off. "If it rains," one pollster told the Los Angeles Times, "it's going to pour."

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It's raining -- in Inslee's Seattle district, anyway. The challenger, who trailed White in the state's open primary by 6 percent, had closed the gap a little since then. But he jumped four points in the days after his aggressive ad was broadcast, to move slightly ahead of the incumbent two weeks before Election Day. "Yesterday a woman stopped her car in the middle of one of Seattle's busiest streets," a bemused Inslee recounts, "just to tell me, 'It's about time somebody had the guts to do this!'"

A month after the punditocracy predicted the Monica Lewinsky scandal could cost Democrats as many as 30 seats in the House of Representatives, some strategists are saying the mess could work in the Democrats' favor, as scandal-weary voters use the election as a referendum on whether they want to watch congressional impeachment hearings drag on well into 1999. A relative handful of votes either way can matter: In 1996, 11 close elections that gave the Republicans their 11-seat majority were decided by a total of less than 12,000 votes.

The boldest -- or most partisan -- among campaign strategists are even predicting that a national ground swell of disgust over the protracted impeachment debate could actually help Democrats gain seats. "Democrats should want their election campaigns to engage the impeachment issue," says a memo to Democrats from Clinton booster James Carville and Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Al Quinlan. "Do not run from it. The impeachment inquiry is an opportunity."

According to the three strategists, their poll of 800 voters in mid-October yielded good news for Democrats: The base of likely voters in the coming election who are Democrats rose from 31 to 36 percent of the electorate, compared to 31 percent Republicans. And after dropping in polls just after the release of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on the Lewinsky matter, Democrats nationwide have gained four points in the last month. Carville urges Democrats to grab the impeachment issue and ride it to victory.

"These last two weeks are likely to be very different from what we have experienced up until now," Carville wrote in the memo. "Democrats have been on the defensive ... But now is the time to use every free media outlet you have because voters are ready to sit up and take notice. Hit the Republicans hard."

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To some Democrats, the best evidence that Carville and company are right comes from the relative Republican silence on the impeachment issue in the hundreds of congressional races around the country. Just over a month ago, strategists were predicting a blitz of TV ads featuring Clinton's many televised Lewinskyisms -- from denial to admission to semantic hair-splitting in his grand jury testimony. But since then GOP candidates have dropped the issue. The few Republicans who ran anti-Clinton ads quietly pulled them when they yielded no gains.

But just as predictions of an impeachment-inspired Republican landslide proved to be wishful thinking, so might the Democrats' dreams of an impeachment backlash. Some Democrats and their supporters -- including one of Greenberg and Quinlan's clients -- question the idea that running hard on impeachment will help party candidates. The truth is no one understands the inscrutable midterm electorate.

Traditionally, many fewer Americans vote in the elections held in between presidential campaigns -- turnout usually drops by half -- and those who do tend to be more conservative. While national polls show Democrats leading in the congressional races by several points, the advantage goes to Republicans when the polling universe is narrowed to likely voters.

So far, there's little hard data to suggest this election will be a bellwether on impeachment. The real story might be that last month's hand-wringing over the Democrats' congressional chances, in the wake of the Starr Report revelations, had little basis in fact. There was no difference in Democratic turnout or election support in primaries held before the Starr Report and after according to Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

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And an analysis by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in early September found that Republicans outnumbered Democrats among likely voters in this midterm election by eight points. But the gap was actually smaller than the 10-point difference polls found before the 1994 midterm. (Because Congress is already majority-Republican, where it was majority-Democrat in 1994, an outcome similar to 1994 would merely maintain the status quo, not doom Democrats.)

Pew's latest poll, released yesterday, says the picture hasn't changed -- yet.

"The supposed backlash against Congress hasn't made an iota of difference in local races," says Pew director Andrew Kohut. Republicans still hold a lead among likely voters, and in the 105 races analysts consider "competitive," the Republicans lead 48 to 44 percent. Even though voter opinion of Congress has "soured," Kohut says, leading to a decline in support for incumbents to 58 percent of registered voters from 66 percent last January, the percentage of voters who say they'll use the election to vote against Clinton rose from 16 percent to 23 percent. Meanwhile, only 19 percent say the Starr investigation is very important for the nation and only 3 percent say they want candidates to talk about Clinton during the campaign.

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Yet Kohut says the Carville strategy could pay off for Democrats in certain races. "If Democrats can bring it up in the right way, it could be effective. But right now the anger about impeachment is mostly confined to core Democratic constituencies -- who may not vote."

The two big questions about the election come down to who will vote, and what will independent voters do. There's good news for Democrats on both counts.

For two months the common wisdom has been that if the Lewinsky mess inspires the Republican base to surge to the polls, Democrats are doomed. But if Democrats get energized by what Clinton defenders call a Republican coup d'état against a popular president, Republicans are in trouble. Most observers have expected the first scenario.

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Two weeks ago, Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib predicted that public opposition to impeachment wouldn't help Democrats in upcoming elections, because Clinton supporters tended not to vote. Likely voters, Seib observed, were "older, richer, more conservative, more Southern and more Republican than the overall population" -- and more likely to support pushing on with the impeachment proceedings. "The opinions of the millions of Americans who have checked out of the electoral process by failing to vote don't really count for very much," sniffed Seib.

But the Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday shows that this year, the base of likely voters is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. While in October 1994 -- just before the Republican congressional landslide -- polls gave Republicans a 40 percent to 30 percent advantage, the Pew poll found Democrats and Republicans each make up 35 percent of the likely electorate this fall.

Other Democratic pollsters are seeing trends similar to those described by Carville and Greenberg. "I think it's safe to say that Democrats are getting more interested in this election," says Fred Yang, a pollster with Hart Research in Washington, D.C. "Intensity has risen and the percentage of likely voters who are Democrats has too."

Maybe most disturbing for Republicans, independent voters -- who made up more than a quarter of the midterm electorate in 1994 -- "are starting to go the Democrats' way," Yang says. The Pew poll confirms this: It found that independent voters are closer to Democrats than Republicans in their opposition to impeachment and in their disapproval of the way Congress has handled the inquiry debate.

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But while voters' impeachment fatigue could help Democrats, some analysts doubt that going aggressively negative against Republicans on the issue is a winning strategy for Democrats. "I really don't think so," says Stephanie Cohen, communications director for Emily's List, which supports women candidates. Cohen says her group's polling -- which, ironically, was conducted by Greenberg and Quinlan -- actually shows that women voters, at least, are turned off by outright partisan attacks on Republicans.

"That kind of tone -- continuing to raise the saber of impeachment with very partisan attacks -- is not what they want," Cohen says. "Our polling shows women want to know who has solutions: Who will fix the schools? What are their plans to improve health care?"

Pollster Al Quinlan acknowledges there's reason for Cohen's concern. "Stephanie is right: Women voters in particular want to hear about issues, not politics," he says. Quinlan, Carville and Greenberg say the best strategy is combining a critique of the impeachment mess with vocal Democratic stands on key issues like education, health care and Social Security.

"And we wouldn't advise a candidate to raise impeachment in certain races -- pretty much anywhere in the South, for instance, and some places in the Southwest. It's best seen as a strategy for Democratic challengers. If it's done well -- and it looks like Jay Inslee did it well -- you'll see a jump."

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Impeachment or not, something is stirring the Democratic base. Turnout by women declined by 2 million between the 1992 presidential election and the 1994 midterm race, and more Republican women voted than Democrats, thus erasing the gender gap that had favored Democrats in 1992. But Pew polls show the gender gap is back: Democrats enjoy a 48 to 41 percent edge among women voters.

"Despite what the pundits have been saying -- and they're really a bunch of bed-wetters -- this is a very good climate for the Democrats," insists California Democratic Party consultant Bob Mulholland. "P.T. Barnum said it best: 'If you want to build a crowd, start a fight.'" California Democrats are devoting $6 million to energizing their base, Mulholland says, targeting districts with lots of minority voters and white liberals with absentee ballot campaigns, a get-out-the-vote drive and "mailers with photos of Ken Starr and Newt Gingrich."

Nationally, the AFL-CIO is sinking millions into grass-roots voter turnout strategies. The Women's Vote Project is pledging to bring back the 2 million women who left the rolls in 1994 with an aggressive publicity and voter turnout drive. The national Democratic Party is promising that ads and appearances by Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton are planned to boost turnout among women, minorities and liberal loyalists.

Some observers are skeptical that the Democrats really know how to energize their base. "The problem is, they learned some of the wrong lessons from their defeats: They learned to avoid dealing with their base," says elections analyst Curtis Gans. "After going too far toward identity politics in the '80s, they developed this studious, poll-driven, middle-class appeal, and in certain ways narrowed their constituency. So I think the Carville strategy is as good a strategy as the Democrats have right now."

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So far, though, the success of Inslee's aggressive campaign strategy hasn't yet produced a storm of copycat advertising. No one interviewed knew of another Democratic candidate readying similar ads. Only Ralph Neas, a Democrat who faces a tough battle to unseat moderate Republican Connie Morella of suburban Maryland, has hit the airwaves with an ad attacking his opponent's impeachment stand, and he ran it before the Inslee results were in.

"Impeachment is not a big issue in this race, ironically," says Beth Davidson, spokeswoman for Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who is trying to oust Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot in a closely watched race. "Chabot voted against the budget yesterday, which gives us plenty to work with on an issue that's important to our constituents."

But Inslee says his strategy was the right one for his district. Having served in Congress for one term -- he was defeated in the Republican 1994 landslide, thanks largely to his vote for an assault-weapons ban -- he knows the feel of a winning issue. "This didn't come out of polling. I didn't approach this with a lot of campaign sophistication. I'm the one out there listening to people and they're very angry. So my campaign advisors just asked me to think about it -- did I really want to take this on?

"And I told them I did. So we moved ahead together. I knew voters felt strongly about it." In the Seattle area, at least, the polls are proving him right.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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