Election outcome still anybody's guess

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

With Nov. 5 just three weeks away, we are swiftly approaching that critical time when the national electorate moves in imperceptible, eleventh-hour unison toward a surprisingly lopsided victory for either the Democrats or the Republicans, or instead splinters its support among countless individual candidates in the states.

A long discussion last week with Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., widely considered the most likely individual to head the Republican congressional effort in the next election, made it clear that Republicans are cautiously optimistic heading into November, even though the overall picture has yet to come into focus. Reynolds said he believes the economy is important to his constituents, and says the Democrats have failed to provide voters with any clear message as to what they would do to ease these hard times.

Reynolds' assessment seemed fair, accurate and very reminiscent of past times when the U.S. general election could have easily become just another vote, or instead produced a major political power shift. A brief history lesson explains the point.

In 1992 the nation had a very confused post-Gulf War electorate that seemed focused on the appeal of a potential third-party candidacy. Sure enough, firebrand Ross Perot won over just enough disaffected Republicans to help Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton defeat then-President George Bush.

But 1994 was a different story. With two weeks to go before the election, control of Congress seemed very much in question. The first two years of the Clinton White House had been rocky -- a series of early failures, including Hillary Clinton's ill-fated effort to "reform" health care -- had left the vote in many congressional battles up for grabs. The speed at which voters started to trend Republican amazed even then-Minority Leader

Newt Gingrich, who told me the weekend prior to the election that it was becoming clear the GOP might actually take control of the House.

In 1998, Gingrich, whose 1994 miracle had made him House speaker, was watching the reverse take place. A booming economy, coupled with largely ineffective late Republican TV ads attacking Clinton on impeachment, had the speaker and his team struggling to hold on to power.

Had the election taken place just a week later, the Republicans might have lost control completely. And, of course, no history lesson is required to remind everyone of just how closely split Americans were in the 2000 election.

Now, with only weeks to go until this year's election, most political observers project a neck-and-neck battle for control of both chambers. Most agree the Republicans will hold the House by a slim margin and the Democrats will retain Senate control by as little as one seat.

Two key issues -- the economy and war against Iraq -- will effectively control the one factor that will most determine whether we see a last-second avalanche toward one party or the other: voter turnout.

The lower the voter turnout, both in individual states and across the nation as a whole, the less likely any state will witness a major election upset, or that congressional power will shift. Here are three potential scenarios:

Scenario One: With an Iraq War Resolution now safely in hand, President Bush starts to focus his remarks on strengthening the economy; the stock market stays steady, avoiding its usual October "day of disaster"; Republican candidates continue to pick up speed in critical Senate races; and the GOP ends up with a last-minute rise that gives Republicans control of both houses. The late surge also saves some otherwise shaky gubernatorial races for the Republicans, possibly even creating some upsets, such as in California.

Scenario Two: The Iraq issue goes to the backburner until after Nov. 5; the market takes a jolting one-day dive or a prolonged and discouraging decline; the White House continues to ignore discussing potential new economic efforts; and a last-minute dose of pessimism fueled by the national media persuades Americans that the economy is stuck in a downward spiral. The result is a shift of control of the House to Democrats, an increased Democratic lead in the Senate, and some Democratic upsets in critical governor's races, such as in Florida.

Scenario Three: The market keeps chasing its tail, Bush keeps edging closer to an Iraqi invasion, and things remain about as they are today. If so, the House likely stays Republican, the Senate stays Democrat, and gubernatorial candidates rise or fall completely on their own merits.

Reynolds seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the nation's political races. He was optimistic about Republican chances, but focused on the need to recognize how critical the economy will be in the few days before the election. You can bet his Democratic counterparts are holding their breaths.

Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at www.InsiderAdvantage.com.

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