No, that's not the description of this year's midterm elections, but it could be. It describes the political situation for the first President Bush's midterm election in 1990. That year was dominated by the Persian Gulf Crisis, which ended in early 1991 with the quick defeat of Iraq.
Democrats in November of 1990 won a very modest victory, picking up nine seats in the House of Representatives and one in the United States Senate. (Both parties lost one governor to independent candidates). The 1990 GOP losses were less than the post-World War II average of 27 seats in the House and four in the Senate.
But a 1990-style win this year for Democrats would actually tip the House into Democratic hands and give them back their 50-49 majority after the loss of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died last week in a plane crash.
Every poll taken on the "generic" Republican-Democrat House ballot over the past two months has been a statistical dead heat among those most likely to vote. With the Democrats holding roughly 49 percent of the House seats and the Republicans holding exactly 49 percent of Senate seats, the slightest change in political weather could swing the control of either House of Congress the other way. But so far, no strong tail wind has yet developed for either side. This election is so close that a quirk like Wellstone's tragic death could tip it either way.
As has been noted before, mid-term elections have historically been forums for the president's opposition. Only twice in the last century did a president's party post a net gain of seats in a mid-term election: in 1934 and 1998.
There are two reasons for this: first, a presidential election draws a higher turnout. And those voters who come out for the new president usually are only occasional voters who don't necessarily participate in off-year elections. So the president's party loses key momentum in non-presidential years.
The second reason for mid-term losses is, as John F. Kennedy once said; "to govern is to choose." And choosing policy options usually means unhappy voters somewhere who take out their unhappiness on local candidates.
As viewers watch the returns roll in on Tuesday, here are some things to look for.
--The September 11 Factor:
Since Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush has been the most popular president since Franklin Roosevelt, who also presided over a long-term popular war. Bush's personal approval on foreign policy does appear to be helping local Republicans in the face of the economic slowdown.
Since late September, most polls have shown that the voters have deemed the foreign policy/terrorism/Iraq issues most important. For example, in early September, voters chose economic issues over foreign policy by a 57 to 34 percent margin in the CNN/Gallup poll as being more important to their vote for Congress. Two weeks later, with the Iraqi war resolution being debated on Capitol Hill, the same poll found that the "war with Iraq" was considered more important by a 49 to 42 percent margin.
Obviously, the Republicans are hoping that they can run out the clock with the Bush foreign policy still the top issue. The recent attacks in Bali and the disclosure of North Korea's nuclear program helps them further along these lines.
There is, however, another school of thought. Some observers think the Iraq issue could work to the advantage of Democrats because nearly half the voters (46 percent) in the last Gallup poll oppose an immediate war with Iraq without a United Nations mandate.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are having a tough time being heard on other topics. In the summer of 2001, Democrats were sure they had some winning issues with prescription drugs, the economy, the environment and the perception that Republicans were too close to big business. But the Bush foreign policy strengths since Sept. 11 have trumped all of these issues. Another good comparison to this year would be 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis also overshadowed mid-term elections.
It is virtually impossible for congressional leaders to compete with any president during a popular war; especially one who can drive the national agenda as Bush has shown he can do in the last two months. (The president's approval rating averaged slightly over 65 percent the past months). Local Democratic candidates are doing their best to emphasize economics and health care, but have trouble breaking through. While Democratic incumbents should be able to get their message out, Democratic challengers will need some sort of late surge to win.
One exception to this pattern has been Democratic candidates for governor. In Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan, Democrats have the "change" issue working for them for the simple reason that governors generally don't deal with foreign policy. Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania, Rod Blagojevich in Illinois and Jennifer Granholm in Michigan have all maintained solid leads. They seem to be proving that Tip O'Neill's saying, "all politics is local," is true.
In every election, there are "key precincts" that offer clues on the final outcome. This year, several local races will tell us who is winning overall on Tuesday night. With Congress divided almost equally, every seat will count. But some elections are more indicative than others.
Perhaps the most important (and interesting) statewide contests will be in the president's home state of Texas, where Democrats are attempting a comeback by nominating an ethnically balanced ticket of a Hispanic for governor (businessman Tony Sanchez), a white male for lieutenant governor (John Sharpe), and a black for U.S. Senate (Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk). Polls showed both Sanchez and Kirk trailing, but Sharpe was dead even as of late October. Since Republicans currently control every statewide office in Texas, even one Democratic statewide win will be a sign that they have started successfully rebuilding.
Historically, the Midwestern states have been crucial to national elections. Excluding the split verdict of 2000, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois voted for the winner 90 percent of the time in last century. The key battleground this year will be the Senate races in the Midwest: Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota all feature tight contests. If either party wins two of these three, they'll be on their way to a successful night.
In U.S. Senate races, there are four Democratic seats (Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota) and four Republican seats (Arkansas, Colorado, New Hampshire and Texas) in play. The Democrats replacing the scandal-ridden Robert Torricelli in New Jersey worked in the sense that it turned a sure Democratic loss into a possible win. The Minnesota race remained up in the air: former Vice President Walter Mondale led, but with only 47 percent. But recent polls showed that the other six seats remained closely contested. There is also a tradition of occasional surprises in Senate races like Al D'Amato winning in 1980.
If there is any anti-incumbent feeling among voters, it will most likely be seen in House races though this year. The most obvious sign of an economic tide shifting the election would be the Democratic capture of the House of Representatives.
Other key indicators would Elizabeth Dole losing the Senate race in North Carolina and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk becoming the South's first Democratic African-American U.S. senator in the president's home state of Texas.
But if Democratic Senator Max Cleland of Georgia were to lose after holding a solid polling lead all year, that would mean that President Bush has enough coattails to overwhelm even popular and moderate local Democrats. That would be a switch from 2000, when Bush had no coattails. Not only did he lose the national popular vote; Republicans lost five seats in the Senate and four in the House.
--Other items to watch for on Nov. 5:
Minority and female candidates: Both parties nominated a record number of seven black or Hispanic candidates for governor and senator. In New Mexico, both parties nominated Hispanics: Democrat Bill Richardson should win over GOP nominee John Sanchez. Texas gubernatorial Democratic nominee Tony Sanchez seemed to have mobilized a record Hispanic vote in South Texas that gives him an outside shot at an upset. The two black Democrats nominated for governor -- Carl McCall in New York and Joe Neal in Nevada -- trailed popular Republican incumbents. But Ron Kirk in Texas was just three points behind in the latest tracking polls.
Will 2002 be another "year of the woman?" A decade ago, spurred by the Anita Hill hearings, four new women senators were elected, more than doubling their numbers. This year, 10 women have been nominated for governor. Hawaiians will get their first female governor because both parties nominated women. Jennifer Granholm in Michigan looks like a sure winner, while Janet Napolitano in Arizona, Kathleen Sebulius in Kansas, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland, Shannon O'Brien in Massachusetts and Rhode Island's Myrth York all were in very close races going into late October.
The Turnout factor: One key element in any midterm election is turnout. Except for monster Democratic years like 1958, Republicans generally have the edge in money and organization that helps them compete in low turnout elections. Since 18 year-olds were given the right to vote in 1972, turnout in midterms has ranged from 34 percent to 40 percent of the eligible adults. This year, Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, is predicting another mediocre turnout between 34 percent and 38 percent. Since a good turnout in the minority communities carried Al Gore to his victory in the popular vote in 2000, any falloff in voter interest should help Republicans in close races.
A historic double switch: One fascinating possibility in this otherwise bland year would be a "double-switch" in control of Congress. Since the popular vote was instituted for the US Senate in 1913, there has never been an election where both the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate flipped to different parties in the same year. In 2002, the Democrats need to gain only seven House seats for a majority in the lower chamber and Republicans just one seat in the Senate.
Vagaries of local politics could see a Democratic House facing off against a GOP Senate this January, just the opposite of the current situation. The other interesting scenario would be that a tie in either house could set off a furious bid for party switchers and/or bi-partisan deals. In the Senate, for example, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island has raised the possibility of following Vermont's Jim Jeffords out of the Republican Party. And Georgia Democrat Zell Miller is being courted by Republicans to join their side. It's also possible that Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu could be forced into a December run-off. A tied election could set off even more political maneuvering that lasts until January.
--The stock market:
Democrats were pinning their hopes for gains on the stock market. Nearly half of all households own stocks or mutual funds, thus making them a potentially strong swing vote. On the day George W. Bush became president, the Dow Jones average stood at 10,587. In early October, the Dow dropped to just over 7000, a roughly 30 percent decline since January 20, 2001.
Republican consultant and tax cut advocate Stephen Moore told Kate O'Beirne in National Review that Republicans would lose their House majority if the Dow was below 8500 on Election Day. Last week, it closed at slightly above 8500 after a thousand-point-plus rise in the last two weeks. As with everything this year, the stock market factor is too close to call. But Moore is almost certainly correct: the market decline hurts Republicans with their middle class base, but even a small rally would take the edge off voter anger over their declining 401(k) retirement plans and stock portfolios.
Partisan strategists often emphasize some campaigns more than others, creating categories of "must-win," potential upsets and "dreams-come-true."
The Republicans simply must win a majority in either House of Congress to avoid a debacle. Potential GOP upsets for the Senate include: Jim Talent in Missouri and John Thune in South Dakota.
The Republican dream scenario: holding the House and winning back the Senate. Their ultimate dream would include having Bill Simon upset Gov. Gray Davis in California and Robert Ehrlich defeat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the governor's race in Maryland.
Anything less than winning both Houses of Congress would be a disappointment for Democrats. Potential Democratic upsets include Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Tom Strickland in Colorado. The Democratic dream scenario: winning the House, adding a few new seats to their very narrow Senate majority by electing Ron Kirk in Texas as the first black senator from the South since the Civil War era, electing McCall as the first black governor outside the South and upsetting Jeb Bush in Florida.
The odds against either party getting everything it dreams of are overpowering. As of late October, neither party has been able to break out. The guess here is that the Democrats narrowly take the House and add a few Senate seats in a protest vote on economics. Carl McCall will only win if Tom Golisano cracks 20 percent of the total vote. And if Ron Kirk wins in Texas, Democrats will be on their way to a landslide.
(Patrick Reddy is a consultant to California Democrats).