WASHINGTON — A midterm election is like a cheap circus. Ancient elephants, toothless tigers, chattering monkeys, a couple of high-wire acts and lots of clowns. But no main event.
In the political circus, the main event is a presidential election. Without a main event, the same thing happens in an election as in a circus: fewer customers show up. Turnout in the 1988 presidential election was 50% of those old enough to vote. At the 1986 midterm, only 33% showed up. Without a main event, you lose one-third of your audience.
In a midterm, it's not just a matter of how many people vote. It's also a matter of who votes. If either Democrats or Republicans stay home in large numbers, the other party prospers.
That's why Republican strategists are worried this year. Republicans are demoralized. They've lost all their issues. Anti-communism? Gone with the Wall. Anti-abortion? That can get a candidate in big trouble. Anti-tax? "Read my flips."
Meanwhile, Democrats are angry. Working people are angry about the recession. Middle-class people are angry about taxes. Farmers and senior citizens are angry about budget cuts. Blacks are angry about the President's veto of the civil-rights bill. The rule is angry people vote. Demoralized people stay home.
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. Republicans hoped the voters would be angry at everybody and come out in record numbers to vote against all incumbents. Since there are more incumbent Democrats than Republicans, the Democrats would pay a greater price.
That's not going to happen. The polls show a revolt against incumbency but not against incumbents. People think Congress is doing a terrible job. But their own congressman is OK. Out of 32 senators, 25 governors and 405 members of Congress running for reelection this year, precisely one was defeated in a primary. And he had been convicted of a sex crime.
People will still vote for incumbents. But they will also vote for measures to set term limits for incumbents in California and Colorado, the two states where such measures are on the ballot. What the voters are saying is, "Stop us before we reelect again."
You get an anti-incumbent revolt when vast numbers of angry people who rarely vote show up at the polls and make trouble. They did that in two primaries this year--voting against incumbents who weren't even running in Massachusetts (Michael S. Dukakis) and the District of Columbia (Marion S. Barry Jr.). Studies show, however, that overall primary turnout was down. With George Bush, there is no hate factor. Just disappointment.
So the Democrats are likely to win a respectable victory--net gains of one or two Senate seats, 8-12 House seats and two or three governors. The Republicans have only one hope: If they can't win the election, maybe they can win the interpretation.
Democrats will claim these as spectacular gains--given what Republicans were saying at the beginning of the year. Back then, when Bush was at his peak of popularity and Democrats were demoralized, Republicans boasted they would knock off three or four incumbent Democratic senators and pick up seats in the House.
Republicans will talk about how modest this year's Democratic gains were, especially given the Democrats' great expectations. This is, after all, a recession year, Republicans will say, and the Democrats did not come close to the 26 House seats and seven new governors they gained in 1982, the last recession year.
Maybe not, the Democrats will respond, but that's because the party was in a far stronger position going into the 1990 election than into the 1982 election. With 258 House seats now, as compared with 243 in 1982, the Democrats just couldn't gain that many more.
In U.S. politics, winning the interpretation is just as important as winning the election. For example, winning the interpretation will help the Democrats realize their goal of constructing a veto-proof majority in Congress.
Right now, there's a stalemate in Washington. Bush can't get what he wants out of Congress, and the Democrats in Congress don't have enough votes to override the President's vetoes. But if 1990 is seen as a big defeat for the President, Congress will find it much easier to override his vetoes. Wavering Democrats will gain the courage to stand up to Bush, and wavering Republicans will continue to defy the President--as they did in last month's budget vote. The Democrats will use the election to make the case that Bush is a loser.