WASHINGTON — Last week about 30 political analysts met at one of Washington's leading think tanks to pass judgment on the 1986 midterm election. The verdict: a turned-off electorate. No big issues. No excitement. No national themes. A ho-hum election, distinguished only by mudslinging and negative campaigning. Politics as usual.
There is something about 1986 they don't understand, however. A normal vote this year may produce interesting, even spectacular results. Why? Because so few of our elections in recent years have been normal. A ho-hum election on Tuesday with only die-hard partisans bothering to show up at the polls would result in plenty of change. The Republicans, who are in power, don't want that to happen. They are doing everything they can to drive up turnout and make the election a national referendum.
It is usual for voter turnout to drop in a midterm election. But low turnout on Tuesday will hurt Republicans. That may sound funny, since Republicans are supposed to do better among well-educated voters who vote all the time. In recent years, however, Republicans have been doing very well among casual voters who vote only in presidential years. Those voters helped elect a great many new Republican senators in 1980. The senators from the class of 1980 are up for reelection this year, and they are going to be in trouble if presidential Republicans stay home. The party knows it.
The GOP is planning to telephone 11 million people in 25 states to urge them to go to the polls next week. Many will hear a recorded message from President Reagan. "It's the most extraordinary, massive get-out-the-vote operation ever mounted," said Democratic pollster Patrick H. Caddell.
The Republicans are also trying to nationalize the 1986 election. They want a referendum on the Reagan presidency. The Democrats would just as soon not talk about national issues. "Democrats are fighting very hard to keep the races local," said Douglas E. Schoen, a Democratic poll-taker, "because, man to man and woman to woman, the Democrats are rated as good as or better than their opponents."
There is another reason. On most major national issues--managing the economy, holding down inflation, handling foreign relations--the Republicans have been rated better than the Democrats lately. That is why Republicans have been doing so well in presidential elections. Presidential elections are concerned with the overall direction of national policy. Midterm elections are usually fought on narrower issues, such as which candidate can provide more benefits and services--Democrats' territory.
This distinction helps to explain a puzzling poll finding. Voters say they have more confidence in the Republicans when it comes to making national policy. But they prefer to see the Democrats in control of Congress. "We think the Republicans have better national policies," the voters seem to be saying, "but we want the Democrats around to protect us and provide for us."
The economy is working for the Democrats this year precisely because it is more of a local than a national issue. The party talks about a "Swiss cheese economy," with some areas enjoying prosperity while others suffer from recession. So while President Reagan says, as he did last week, "We're headed for a second boom," the Democrats are doing very well in those parts of the country that never experienced the first one.
Fearing that 1986 was beginning to look like politics as usual, the Republicans started to get a little panicky. "For us to hold on in the Senate," said one GOP strategist, "everything has to break perfectly in a lot of states. I've never seen a midterm election in which everything breaks perfectly." So they decided to get out the ultimate weapon. "Either the President is going to do it for us or we're not going to do it," said a party official.
During the last 10 days, the President has made a "last hurrah" campaign swing through Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Indiana, South Dakota, Missouri, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Idaho and California. Almost all of them are states where Republican Senate candidates are in trouble.
Reagan's 1986 campaign, however, exposes a basic flaw in the Republicans' strategy: The Administration has no real agenda for the next two years. The President got what he wanted out of Congress this year--tax reform and military aid to the contras in Nicaragua. If the President tells the voters he needs a Republican Senate to support his program, they will naturally ask, "What program?" "The same program we had in 1980" is not a very convincing answer.