Aunt Gertrude, my 97-year-old aunt in Marlboro, Mass., who usually doesn't skip a beat, looked surprised when I said I was really busy this year on the election.
"Oh no, that's not coming up already, is it?" she asked. At first I thought she was starting to slip. Then I realized that I felt the same way. It seems like just yesterday we were counting chads in Florida. And then Sept. 11 happened and our gyroscopes went out of whack. Campaign 2002 is being fought under the old rules in a world that's very different from the one where those rules made some sense.
Democratic campaign consultants say, for the most part, that Sept. 11 hasn't affected their strategies. And they point to their victories in the 2001 gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey as shining examples of why Sept. 11 shouldn't matter this year.
Republican consultants say much the same thing about their campaigns on a micro-level. But the White House has believed for the past year that the national unity which followed the terrorist attacks would work in their favor and give President Bush and GOP candidates incredible political capital to spend on the midterm elections, especially on recapturing the Senate.
Karl Rove, the White House political sage, got roundly criticized last winter for suggesting what every political operative knows to be true: that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the war on terrorism would be a great political asset for the GOP. "We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," Rove told the Republican National Committee in January 2002.
And go to the country they did. While Vice President Dick Cheney was shuttled from one secure undisclosed location to another, President Bush blew the lid off the moratorium on politics, and beginning with an event for his brother Jeb on January 10, made 67 fund-raising trips to 34 states, raising $145 million for GOP candidates.
In addition, he has Get-out-the-Vote trips scheduled to 23 states to in the final two weeks of the campaign. His pitch at these events, often coupled with a taxpayer-paid presidential speech in the same city, isn't just foreign policy; mostly it's about his tax cut, something beloved by Republicans who believe down to their toenails that Democrats want to tax and spend it away.
From Art Linkletter to Saddam Hussein
Meanwhile, the Democrats have careened from domestic issue to domestic issue trying to get some traction, still believing that those golden oldies that won Al Gore the popular vote in 2000 – prescription drugs, preserving Medicare and Social Security and keeping the economy strong – would work for them, if only they could engage the voters. They were outfoxed on prescription drugs by the Republicans, who put out their own plan, and with the help of Art Linkletter and a $9-to-$13-million ad campaign paid for by the pharmaceutical industry, mired the debate in confusing details. In the late spring and early summer, the Democrats thought their moment had come. First, energy giant Enron declared bankruptcy and then telecom colossus WorldCom followed suit. The stock market took a dive and Democrats' hopes soared that their favorite populist themes might produce momentum that would not only allow give them control of both the House and the Senate, but do so with convincing margins.
But by September, the focus was back on foreign policy, first Iraq and then North Korea. And as candidates still fought about privatizing Social Security, corporate responsibility and prescription drugs, the national focus was on almost everything but the midterm elections. Democrats caved on the Iraq resolution as a way to get it off the agenda so that their economic message might return. But the Tyndell Report, which counts the number of minutes broadcast networks spend on particular topics, showed little enthusiasm for the elections. For the week of Oct. 14-18, the networks spent 86 minutes on foreign policy issues – Iraq, Bali, North Korea and the war on terrorism – 81 minutes on the D.C. sniper and gun policy, and six minutes each on the stock market and breast cancer. Campaign 2002 ranked tenth on the list of stories, rating just five minutes of national coverage.
Local stations were almost equally devoid of election coverage. A study done by the Lear Center found over half of the local stations in the top 50 markets did no political coverage on their major news shows in late September and early October. Those that did concentrated heavily on the governors' races, and only 22 percent of the stories were on the Senate or House.
Of course, television was not completely without politics. Campaign advertising records were again smashed with over $300 million spent by the end of September. This is the last election in the pre-McCain-Feingold era and campaign committees showed no evidence that the law, which was deliberately set to go into effect on Nov. 6 – the day after the midterms – has slowed down their old soft-money addiction. Combined, the national parties raised $685 million this cycle. Governors, who won't be impacted by McCain-Feingold, were even bigger spenders, combining to dole out $200 million by September. The 72 major party candidates for governor will have easily raised over a half-a-billion dollars for their campaigns; Democratic candidates in just two states, California and Texas, together will have spent well over $100 million, mainly on TV ads.
New Trends: Back To The Roots And Early Voting
Campaign 2002 did see a few "new" trends. One was a renewed emphasis on grassroots campaigning. The unions decided a few years ago to cut back their use of TV ads and put together a state-of-the-art field operation. Steve Rosenthal, the outgoing head of the AFL-CIO's COPE is spearheading a huge GOTV drive in the key Senate states. While they won't say how much of their $32 million political budget is going toward this effort, it is a very sophisticated plan where union members will receive up to 20 contacts by Election Day. The Republicans are trying to match this with a hi-tech voter contact system of their own, and maestros Tony Feather and Blaise Hazelwood have the operation in high gear.
A second trend is the increase in early voting. About 15 percent of the national vote this year will be cast prior to Election Day, and in Oregon 100 percent will be cast by mail. While early voting is particularly prevalent in Western states, a total of more than 30 states will have some type of absentee or "no-excuses" voting prior to Nov. 5. Campaigns have shifted their strategies to account for this and are building heavy absentee voter drives into their Get-Out The Vote plans. In Michigan, for example, veteran Democratic Rep. John Dingell was in a very tight primary race in which half the votes he needed – 23,000 of 46,000 – his campaign deemed necessary before the polls opened. States from Florida and Maryland to South Dakota and Iowa report there's been a surge in requests for absentee ballots.
Along with early voting there appears to be another trend: early dropping out. First Andrew Cuomo in New York, then Bob Torricelli in New Jersey and then Mike Taylor in Montana – all three threw in the towel when the polls showed they were in danger of losing. New Jersey Democrats had enough time to recover after a couple of court decisions went their way. Republicans in Montana were left with a "suspended" campaign, although Taylor's name is still on the ballot.
Two Weeks To Go
As we go into the final two weeks of the campaign, most Republicans will admit to cautious optimism, although the Washington Post says some of them, including those at the Heritage Foundation, are "giddy" and already planning policy changes from tax cuts to tort reform when they regain full control of Congress. Democrats are counting on strong absentee voter and Get-Out-The-Vote drives in battleground states to hold their one-seat Senate advantage that keeps them as players in Washington. They're still trying to change the topic to the economy and are ending the campaign with an ad that will run in states where President Bush is blitzing, asking voters to cast their votes as a check on Republican economics.