America is split over which political party it wants to control Congress. The numbers suggest provocative political days ahead. More tellingly, they point to the group that holds the real power -- the so-called independent voters.
Our most recent survey of 1,000 Americans shows 42 percent of respondents want the
Democrats to control Congress after the 2004 elections, and another 42 percent the Republicans. Sixteen percent are undecided. An exact tie, in other words.
The results shouldn't surprise. They mirror in theory the virtual "tie" between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. Bush's soaring popularity after 9-11 might seem to make all that ancient and now-irrelevant history. But Bush's individual success just doesn't translate to Congress.
In recent years we've seen political control pass back and forth between the two major parties in both national and state elections. A set of presumably entrenched Democratic governors was ousted in 2002 by GOP challengers who came out of nowhere. Others, like California's Gray Davis, enjoyed success in beating Bush-backed candidates. But Davis is now the target of a voter recall movement that some analysts say he may not survive.
Many Americans continue to be polarized. They choose one side or the other and more or less stick with their party, regardless of the race or the candidate. That leaves the true power of decision to the minority 16 percent who describe themselves as undecided or independent voters. Who are these go-it-alones, and what might move them one way or the other at the polls next year?
Most of them are white and range in age from early 30s to late 40s. They tend to wait until right before Election Day to make up their minds. A healthy portion of them are women. As a general rule, women more closely follow the issues and campaigns than do men.
So how do the two parties approach this pivotal demographic?
If the Iraqi occupation keeps being plagued by regular sniper attacks against Americans, or by more organized and large-scale rebellion, independent voters are likely to blame Republicans and punish them at the ballot box. But if the Democrats overplay their hand by trying to paint the whole thing into a sort of foreign policy Watergate to taint the Bush White House, they could alienate the swing voters into defending the president at the ballot box; most generally support Bush.