Interpreting the 2002 Election

by Darrell M. West

Historically, the party controlling the presidency loses seats in off-year United States House and Senate elections. In every midterm election over the last century (except for 1934 in the middle of the Great Depression and 1998 when voters were upset with the GOP impeachment of President Bill Clinton), the in-party has lost seats, especially in the House.

The reason for this is two-fold. Midterm elections generally have a voter turnout that is 15-20 percentage points lower than the preceding presidential election. In addition, after two years of any presidential tenure, people are upset with the various decisions that are made by the chief executive.

The 2002 elections stands as an interesting contrast to the historic pattern because Republicans picked up seats in the House and Senate and now have majority control of the White House and Congress. In this report, I take a close look at what happened nationally and what the results mean for the upcoming presidential election.

GOP Gains

Republicans have picked up several seats in the U.S. House and have majority control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats picked up a few governorships, but not as many as they thought they would going into the election. By almost any measure, Republicans have to feel very happy with the results. Although they lost governorships in several big Midwestern states, they held their own in the South and West and retained governorships in New England (Massachusetts and Rhode Island). The latter is noteworthy because New England has not been a very strong region for Republicans in recent years. The fact that they kept governorships in this area means voters in the area are not seeing Republican candidates as mean-spirited Newt Gingrich clones (which is how Democrats portrayed them in the mid-1990s), but as people with good management skills who can police Democratically-controlled legislatures within the region.

The Democratic Strategy of Blurring Differences

Congressional Democrats made a conscious decision early in the 2002 election cycle to blur differences with President George W. Bush and the Republican party. Rather than highlight differences and present a clear alternative to the GOP agenda, Democrats decided not to contest the Iraq war resolution (except through amendments imposing more conditions before the use of force would be implemented). Democrats also negotiated an agreement with the GOP on education policy, but kept Social Security and prescription drugs for seniors alive as issues where they could contrast their party's approach to that of Republicans.

Democrats hoped that by not being too confrontational on foreign policy and by keeping some contrasts alive on domestic policy issues, they could win close races in the House and Senate and pick up 7 to 8 governorships.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious this strategy was not successful for Democrats. Republicans picked up many of the close races for governor and gained a few seats in the House and Senate.

Reasons for GOP Success

There are several reasons why the GOP did well in this election cycle. First, the party successfully redefined the national agenda away from what usually is a focus on domestic economic issues. Midterms typically center on issues such as jobs, education, and health care, not foreign policy. By taking a tough stance on international terrorism and arguing for the need to use force against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bush pushed the political debate onto terms that were much more favorable to Republicans than Democrats.

Second, the GOP used the bully pulpit of the White House to raise money for their party's candidates around the country and to send the president into crucial swing states in the last three weeks of the campaign. With Bush's popularity hovering in the mid-60s, he was able to swing close states into the Republican column in several House, Senate, and governor's races.

Third, the relatively low turnout of voters across the country played to the GOP demography. Republican voters tend to be more upscale and prosperous than Democrats. In close races, suburban areas posted much higher turnout than did urban areas that traditionally have favored the Democrats.

By having followed a strategy of blurring differences with the GOP, Democrats were not able to energize their base and convince their partisans that the stakes of this election were high enough that people not very engaged. In a situation where there is low turnout and Republican supporters are more likely to cast ballots, the GOP was able to win many of the closest races on Election Night.

Finally, Republicans had a good combination of money and message. In many states, the GOP candidate out-spent the Democrat and had a message of being tough on foreign policy, conservative on taxes, and moderate on education and health care. Meanwhile, Democrats generally had less money and were unclear about whether they wanted to confront the president or blur the differences with him. In politics, money and message is a tough combination to beat.

Implications for the Presidential Election

The 2002 national results have interesting consequences for the upcoming 2004 presidential race. Despite the major institutional consequences of this election (i.e., Republicans gaining control of the Senate and keeping control of the House), the country remains very close to a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats. In terms of public opinion, there is no clear or definitive majority sentiment in favor of either party. Republicans did well because in a low turnout midterm election, the close races broke in their favor. This does not indicate any trend for 2004 or provide definitive evidence that Bush is a shoo-in for re-election.

The important thing for Democrats is not to over-react to this election. There already is second-guessing as to whether the "blur the differences" strategy worked or that Democrats should have confronted Bush on foreign policy and crystallized the differences between the parties.

The classic Democratic problem is in-fighting with one side wanting the party to be pure and liberal and the centrists preferring a moderate strategy with the party embracing some moderate stances (especially on foreign policy and taxes).

This debate is going to be problematic for Democrats because while congressional Democrats opted for a blurring strategy, Democratic presidential candidates generally opposed the Bush decision to go after Iraq. The latter position will gain more prominence following the 2002 election. As Democratic presidential hopefuls travel around the country, they will push a more confrontational line with Bush and the GOP. They have to be careful they don't go too far in pushing this perspective, otherwise they will alienate the center of the political spectrum.

However, it is not just Democrats who face a major challenge for 2004. Republicans must be careful they do not fall victim to hubris. Following major election victories in the past, majority parties often have over-reached their policy mandate and thereby created problems for themselves. Democrats did that in the 1960s and Republicans did that in the 1990s. The GOP should not assume because they have a majority of the House and Senate that they have a public opinion majority or a mandate for domestic policy actions that are out of the political mainstream. Republicans should stay focused on the things that helped them this year, which was talking tough on Iraq.

Control of Scandal Machinery

The most significant advantage that Bush gained in the 2002 election was having congressional Republicans be in charge of the scandal machinery. In recent years, it has become a major political tactic for one party to investigate the other side. Congressional Republicans did that to Bill Clinton and congressional Democrats have done that with George W. Bush.

In an era where many people are not engaged in the issues and feel that Washington politics is isolated from their own concerns, politicians have turned to personal scandal as a way to embarrass the opposition. Even if many voters do not pay close attention to a candidate's stance on Social Security, it may be possible to generate unfavorable news coverage through investigations into their private lives, looks into past business dealings, or allegations of conflicts of interest. The politics of scandal have become a major way to contest the political turf.

With Republicans holding majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats will not be in a position to control the committees that issue subpoenas and organize public hearings. Those tasks generally are left to the majority. If either the House or Senate had remained Democratic, the opposition party would have pushed for investigations into Bush's past business dealings and relations with the oil and energy industries. This obviously would create a major problem for the incumbent president leading up to 2004.

With GOP control of the investigatory mechanisms, Bush will be in a stronger position to focus on his policy agenda without fear of extensive congressional oversight.

No Year of the Women

The 2002 election cycle did not prove to be very friendly to female candidates. Before the election, pundits predicted women would win governorships in several places around the country. However, female candidates lost in highly publicized races in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maryland.

While there were idiosyncratic reasons why women lost each of these contests, the national political environment was not very favorable for women. In years where subjects such as education and health care are dominant, female candidates tend to do better with voters. But when the agenda focuses on national security, women politicians have not fared as well. In that type of situation, it becomes more difficult for women to overcome voter stereotypes and win office.

No Year of the Kennedy

This campaign will go down in history as the first year two separate Kennedys lost bids for elective office. In the Democratic congressional primary in Maryland, Mark Shriver lost his bid for the nomination. Then in the general election, his cousin Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost her campaign to become governor of Maryland.

These Kennedy defeats demonstrate the problems of exporting the Kennedy magic beyond New England. That region traditionally has been one where Kennedys have done well. Patrick Kennedy was re- elected to Congress from Rhode Island with more than a 20 percentage point margin. The area's liberalism and large numbers of senior citizens make it fertile terrain for Kennedy politicians.

However, other regions are less amenable to the Kennedy message of helping the underprivileged. It is more difficult in other parts of the country for the Kennedys to people who are unhappy with the family.