Congress likely to remain divided following elections

Sunday, November 3, 2002

WASHINGTON -- A nervous nation goes to the polls Tuesday to select a new Congress, and voters are as likely to elect a divided government in this era of anxiety as they did two years ago in a time of peace and prosperity.

The House of Representatives appears likely to remain narrowly in Republican control. All 435 seats are up for election. Polls suggest a late, slight turn toward Democrats, but even so, Democrats would have to sweep every toss-up district and pick up some Republican districts to gain a majority. That's a steep challenge absent a strong tide of voter sentiment, and none is apparent.

The Senate is too close to call. With 34 of 100 seats up for election, six seats remained toss-ups going into the final campaign weekend. An even split would keep the Senate narrowly in Democratic control.

At stake: President Bush's agenda for the remaining two years of his term. He wants to create a Department of Homeland Security, to make his 2001 tax cuts permanent, to allow partial privatization of Social Security and to appoint conservatives to the federal judiciary.

Also up Tuesday: 36 governorships. Republicans, who held a majority of governorships through the 1990s and used them to launch policy experiments such as welfare overhaul, are in danger of losing ground. Democrats, who now hold 21 governorships, are likely to take over in such influential states as Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Evenly split

Americans approach this election as evenly split as they were in 2000. Neither war nor economic woes appear to have moved them to unite behind one party or to rise in anger at the other.

If the vote divides evenly again, Bush could escape the historic trend in which the president's party loses seats in Congress in his first midterm election.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats managed to gain seats in the 1934 midterm elections, but every president since has seen his party lose seats in his first midterm election. The average loss over 10 presidencies: 27 House seats.

Yet Bush has not been able to rally the country behind his party as Roosevelt did, despite his popularity and voters' tendency to trust Republicans more than Democrats with national security.

Three factors help explain why: Bush's popularity, which soared after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has slipped toward a more-normal level; his approval rating dropped below 60 percent last week in a nonpartisan survey by the Pew Research Center. Also, Americans are increasingly uneasy about launching a pre-emptive war on Iraq. And polls show voters now are more worried about the stock market, retirement savings and the economy than they are about terrorism.

But Democrats have been unable to capitalize on these trends. Again, there are three main reasons. The drumbeat for war with Iraq and the Washington sniper have crowded out media coverage of the economy this fall. Many voters don't blame Bush or other Republicans for what they see as a normal business-cycle downturn. And Democrats didn't offer voters an alternative plan to boost markets or the economy.

By late October, voters were giving Democrats only a slight edge over Republicans on the economy, 40 to 37 percent, according to the Pew Research Center poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

"You've got the economy pulling this election towards Democrats, and then you have foreign policy concerns, terrorism, potential war with Iraq pulling the opposite direction," said analyst Charles Cook, author of the respected Cook Political Report. "They're two very, very powerful forces, and right now they're pulling in opposite directions. And at least for now, it's a draw; it's even."

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