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ELECTIONS '96

After Years of Shifts and Tilts, a New Balance May Emerge

Politics: Voters appear to have created division of power that has bolstered Democrats' hold on the White House as GOP settles into Congress.

November 07, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Until the millennium, the watchword in U.S. politics may be uneasy equilibrium.

After all the turbulence, hairpin turns and unexpected reversals of the past six years, voters on Tuesday ratified a tenuous partition of power that denies either of the major parties the right to claim a clear majority of public support.

Instead, the parties emerged from this election closely balanced between offsetting strengths--geographically, demographically and especially institutionally.

"What we have now," said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, "are two plurality parties that can from time to time put together an electoral or a legislative majority."

The election left a political landscape marked by emphatically mixed messages and splintered authority--including divided control of the White House and Congress and a skintight governing majority in the House.

Looking Ahead

While Republicans demonstrated real resilience in retaining Congress against a ferocious Democratic assault, Bob Dole made strikingly little progress in rebuilding the GOP presidential base from the low-ebb of George Bush's resounding 1992 rejection. Indeed, the combined average of Bush and Dole's popular vote--just 39.1%--was the lowest consecutive total for the GOP since the party's landslide defeats at the hands of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936.

"You can't think about this as just a one-time wart on the party," said Tony Fabrizio, Dole's campaign pollster. "It's not that Bob Dole is just the red-haired stepchild of the party; we're going to face these problems in the future."

But while Clinton continued to fill in the outlines of a new Democratic presidential majority--built on a solidifying hold on the Northeast, the Pacific West and portions of the upper Midwest--the party's inability to take back Congress underscored the death of the seemingly permanent Democratic legislative majority that had ruled Capitol Hill for decades.

Third-party politics also appears to have reached a kind of stasis with this election, after offering explosive possibilities in 1992. Tuesday's results demonstrated that Ross Perot faces a low ceiling on his support, but he shows no signs of stepping aside for other voices who might be able to expand the Reform Party's appeal.

Tenuous Grips

This tentative new electoral balance leaves the major parties exchanging the clothes they have worn for most of the past quarter-century, when Republicans routinely won the presidency and Democrats controlled Congress. The alignment now has flipped, with Democrats strengthening their hold on the White House and Republicans settling into Congress.

But the more important story may be the fragility of these advantages: Democrats are not as secure in the White House as Republicans were during the 1970s and 1980s, nor is the Republican hold on Congress as entrenched as the long-standing Democratic advantage that the GOP finally overthrew in 1994.

Like families living from paycheck to paycheck, political leaders who once dreamed of lasting realignments and blank checks for policy revolutions--a chastened group that includes both President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)--now may measure their mandates only from election to election.

"I think what we're getting now are two-year leases," said Don Fierce, the former director of strategic planning at the Republican National Committee. "The voters are saying, 'You get two years and we're watching you.' "

Though neither side has any guarantees, each seems to have an upper hand in one level of their political competition.

With a national message keyed more precisely to the concerns of fiscally conservative, socially tolerant swing voters, it is the Democrats who for now appear to have the easier path toward reaching 270 electoral votes and the White House.

In 1992, Clinton won the presidency by standing still; both in terms of states and key voter groups, Clinton essentially held Michael S. Dukakis' losing share of the vote four years earlier, while the Republican coalition sundered between Bush and Perot. This year, though, Clinton clearly expanded his reach.

Compared to 1992, Clinton made significant gains among not only base Democratic voters like minorities and low-income families, but also swing voters like Catholics, moderates and independents. As Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg noted, Clinton "advanced the coalition up the income ladder"--winning voters at every annual income level below $75,000.

Clinton also widened the gender gap into a chasm, enlarging his margin among women from 5 percentage points in 1992 to 16 this year, and besting Dole among married women who work outside the home--a key target group for his campaign all year.

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