WASHINGTON — The title bout is set: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore. Not exactly Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman, but you've got to live with it. Sominex sales will surely plummet among voters until Labor Day, but in the undercard bouts for congressional seats, this title fight is deadly serious.
There are about 25 House races that will determine whether the Democrats can capture a majority after six years of GOP control. If the Democrats can take just six more seats, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) will be speaker and Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Whip Tom Delay (R-Texas) will fade away. Please, God, this year be a Democrat, and send these two guys back to Satan, in whose house they belong!
In the Senate, not much will change: Democrats could gain a few seats, but Republicans will retain a majority. However, the Senate races in 2002 are heavily weighted in the Democrats' favor. For Senate Democrats, this is a setup year. If they're to take control in 2002, they need two or three seats this November.
If this were a midterm election, House Democrats would be heavily favored to regain control. But it's a presidential-election year, and in closely contested House and Senate seats, the top of the ticket matters. Presidential-election coattails are not what they used to be, when the two major parties could depend on a base of at least 40%. Voters are increasingly independent, even among those registered as Democrats or Republicans.
If the coattail effect of years past was still the paradigm, the presidential winner would help his party's House and, to a certain extent, Senate candidates. But in this era of the Reform Party and the John McCain phenomenon, congressional candidates cannot count on a large, loyal base to carry them to victory.
That's the bad news. The good news is that if your party's presidential candidate loses in what most analysts predict will be a close race, you are less likely to suffer from the winning candidate's coattails helping your opponent. But more bad news is that independent voters, who now make up about 25% of the electorate, are difficult to read. The predicament for congressional candidates is, therefore, two-fold: how to develop a message that energizes the party base and simultaneously appeal to independents.
So if coattails don't matter, why should congressional candidates worry about the presidential race? Two reasons. One is that voter turnout in a presidential-election year is significantly higher than in an off-year. Voters who bypass midterm elections but vote in presidential years include both independents and hard-core party loyalists. For party loyalists, the strategy appears to be straightforward: Get them to the polls, they'll vote for you.
But increasing the party's base vote with a party-line message may risk offending independent voters. For example, Bush needs the Bob Jones crowd to turn out heavily, but a message directed at his right-wing base would surely jeopardize independent voters, as he learned in the Michigan primary.
Gore has a bit of an advantage here. The Democratic base, particularly blacks, tends to turn out in larger numbers to defeat Republicans, because a message that appeals to the Pat Robertson crowd is frightening to African Americans and other Democratic constituencies.
In order for Bush to excite the GOP base, he'll have to emphasize specific wedge issues like abortion and massive tax cuts, the very messages that will energize loyal Democrats to turn out. Gore's base is more diverse and less issue-driven. That makes his message to the Democratic base simpler: Times are good, why rock the boat? That's the positive message. He'll couple that with his negative message: The other guy lacks the right stuff to keep the good times rolling, and his supporters are extremists. This resonates with both base Democrats and independents.
The second concern for congressional candidates about the presidential race is how close to tie themselves to the top of the ticket. On the one hand, you can't move too far away from your party's candidate without alienating the party's constituencies and, as important, its major contributors. These days, a candidate in a hotly contested House race requires a million dollars to be competitive. Most of that money will come from party loyalists and constituencies. On the other hand, if you get too close to the party's nominee and his message doesn't resonate with independent voters, it could mean the election.
How a candidate handles this balancing act is crucial. By definition, contested House and Senate seats result in close races with only a few percentage points between winner and loser. In races that tight, the top of the ticket matters. This requires a congressional candidate to do a balancing act that would make Nadia Comaneci proud. *