Inside the numbers: Controlling Congress

Posted: Jul 15, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Here's an analogy: Independents in 1998 reacted to similar heavy-handed campaigning by Republicans. That's when the GOP tried to defeat all Democrats by linking them to the Clinton impeachment. TV ads to that effect flooded the airwaves in the last days before the election. Now even many top-level conservatives believe that Republican strategy backfired and led to near loss of the House by the GOP.

If the Democrats appear to be scouring for issues by making rash or harsh claims about the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, they too will risk taking what they believe to be important policy concerns and turning them into an old-fashioned "ganging up" on the president.

At the same time, this issue could become central without extra nudging from the Democrats. Too many more examples of, "Oops, we told you wrong facts," could lead to genuine setbacks to Bush and his party mates in '04.

A more likely scenario for Democratic success would be the continued deployment of more and more U.S. troops to new regions of the world. The drain on the federal budget, as well as on the nation's morale, might be overwhelming.

If the economy genuinely rights itself and the Bush administration can turn its attention and ours to matters closer to home -- including the maintenance of a strong homeland defense system -- you can bet those swing voters will go the way of the GOP.

But Republicans must remember that, as a whole, independent voters are best known for their ability to spot arrogance in their leaders. In the end, it will be a matter of which party mistakenly takes for granted the intelligence of these critical voters. That will probably make the difference.