2002 election signals little shift in voter sentiment

The 2002 election produced a Republican majority in the Senate and preserved a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. This means all three branches of government, including the executive branch led by President Bush and a majority of the Supreme Court, are in Republican hands. How could this have happened and what does it mean in the long run?

Upon some examination of the individual electoral races for the House and Senate, that which was most prevalent was the status quo. Legislators have apparently been able to create conditions most favorable for their re-election and that for an incumbent to lose an election and be forced from office is rare indeed. Most times, it requires a scandal of the kind that befell Gary Condit. Absent a scandal, incumbents are pretty safe. Given this, it is difficult to see any large mood swings or philosophical changes among the electorate this year. The vast majority voted, one might say, the same old same old.

Some trends were already long in place. The last time there was a sea change in politics was in 1965 when Democrats passed the Voting Rights Act. Until that time, the American South had been a Democratic bastion of old-boy politics and the Republicans, who had been the party of Lincoln and emancipation, had made little headway there. The Voters Rights Act changed all that. President Lyndon Baines Johnson was painfully aware that the Act, which was sponsored by Democrats, would drive conservative Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. He was absolutely right. The Civil Rights era left an indelible mark on American political parties under which blacks shifted loyalties from Republicans to Democrats and conservative Democrats moved to the Republican Party.

The Republican Party has emerged with an image as the party of law and order and a forceful foreign policy. They are also associated with big business and opposition to government regulation of big business. The Democrats, since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt, have been associated with labor and government benefits for the needy and/or deserving. They get credit, for example, for Social Security. Since the Civil Rights era, they are also associated with the rights and fortunes of minorities. By a margin of about eight percentage points, there are more Democrats than Republicans. This margin has remained constant over the past 50 years.

A problem for the Democrats is that most voters are not loyal to the party. People who are party loyalists tend to vote for that party, but there are not enough voters loyal to either party in many parts for a party to be confident of victory. Voters vote their fears or prejudices and whichever party can manage fear and prejudice to their advantage has a great chance of winning. This is why negative political ads are so effective that they continue to be used even when they bring revulsion against the politician using them. Very close elections - and the 2002 election was very close - may have several factors, but unless one candidate has a popularity factor which can translate into a significant number of votes, elections involving opponents in which neither is an incumbent will tend to go to the candidate of the party which most represents that which the voters are most concerned with.

In 2002, the issue the voters most identified with was national security and war with Iraq, and the party which was most successful marketing itself as able to manage those issues, plus the popularity of President Bush since 9/11, won the day. In 1994, the Republican victory in the House led its leadership to overreach, and it remains to be seen if the Bush administration and its allies in Congress will be able to chart a moderate course. It was, therefore, an unintended consequence of Osama bin Laden's attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center that Americans by a small margin gave the President the political majority he wanted in Congress.

Another way to look at this is that the President has been the beneficiary of excellent political good luck. It probably helped that he has lately moved away from the advice of the most aggressive members of his administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Paul Wolfowitz, and has supported Secretary of State Colin Powell's initiatives in seeking allies among the world community and in invoking the rule of law regarding Iraq. This is a significant departure from his father's course. The United Nations roundly denounced the 1989 invasion of Panama as an egregious violation of international law, and there were numerous other transgressions as well. By moving away from unprovoked unilateral aggression while continuing to talk tough about disarming Iraq, Mr. Bush took the warmonger card away from the opposition.

The Democrats, meanwhile, could muster no more than a lukewarm alternative to the Bush domestic agenda. Modern politicians look to polls and pollsters for advice about how to win elections. With everyone in the field listening to essentially the same advice, the Democrats couldn't get much traction. They couldn't, for example, pose as the defenders of the little person against the corrupt corporations because, echoing a criticism made by Ralph Nader during the 2000 campaign, so many Democrats had received money from those same corporations. Likewise there wasn't much talk about campaign finance reform. The Republicans kept mostly quiet about their plans to privatize social security and didn't talk in strident terms in public about what they would like to do about environmental protection acts and responsibilities.

In short, both parties felt some restraints in representing that which they are inclined to represent because of fear that in very close elections, being too loud about anything can bring about loss. The Democrats have just found out that being too loud about nothing can also bring about loss. A cynical observer might note that the voters they most energized were the Republicans in Minnesota after they held a spirited political rally following the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone.

Above all, the 2002 election did not produce much change. There are compelling arguments that the long-term changes in demographics favor the Democrats in critical voting districts, but no sign of that emerged this year. What emerged is more evidence of the very evenly divided electorate, which should serve as a message to those who are elected to move carefully, and to move not very far.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.