With Republicans holding on to the House of Representatives and capturing control of the Senate, the 2002 midterm elections were an historic victory for the GOP.
Two key factors contributed to this outcome: the failure of Democrats to capitalize on public concern over the economy, and the efforts of President Bush as "Campaigner-In-Chief".
In the weeks heading up to the elections, Democrats were emphasizing domestic issues and the economy, hoping to cash in on the historic trend that voters often punish candidates from the president's party when the economy sours.
Republicans were emphasizing issues related to terrorism and national security—issues they felt would benefit candidates from their party. A poll conducted by CBS News over the weekend preceding the election suggests that not only did the economy fail to dominate security in the minds of likely voters, it is not even clear that Americans are unhappy with how the Republican administration has handled economic issues.
Asked which should be the higher priority for the nation right now, the economy and jobs or terrorism and national security, likely voters were split almost down the middle. Forty-six percent selected economy and jobs, while 47 percent selected terrorism and national security.
Asked specifically about what one issue would matter most in determining their House vote, the number one issue among likely voters was the economy (28 percent). However, almost an equal number (23 percent) chose either terrorism or Iraq as their top concern. The relative importance of these House issues did not significantly differ among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.
Regardless of which of these issues was viewed as a higher priority, most of the likely voters felt President Bush is doing a good job handling that issue. On the economy, 55 percent said they approved of Mr. Bush's performance.
On the specific issue of the tax cuts proposed by Mr. Bush and enacted into law in 2001, 57 percent of likely voters felt they were a good idea, while only 33 percent viewed these tax cuts as a bad idea. On the issue of terrorism, approval of Bush's job performance was even higher, at 68 percent.
Republicans did not necessarily win on the issues of terrorism and security, but these issues were at least as effective in canceling out any benefit Democrats might have had on the economy.
In retrospect, Democrats may have wished they had presented a more coherent message on their plans to fix the economy. In the absence of a clear alternative, the issue of the economy did not drive voters to Democratic candidates and away from Republican candidates.
In an election where no single issue dominated the agenda, the unprecedented campaign efforts of President Bush may have provided the crucial edge that several Republicans in tight races needed to push them over the hump.
While most of the likely voters said that Mr. Bush himself was not a major factor in determining their vote (53 percent), his presence in key states and districts helped in another important way.
Bush visits raised crucial funds for Republican candidates, and brought them invaluable free media coverage for their campaigns. At the same time, coverage of each Bush visit by the media had the effect of drowning out the messages of Democratic candidates' campaigns for at least one news cycle.
Democrats had pinned much of their hope on their strong "get out the vote" efforts in key races. Once again, however, this perceived advantage was more than neutralized by the combination of Republicans' own stepped-up efforts in this area in tandem with Bush's campaign visits that also served to energize Republican voters. With Bill Clinton no longer in office, his own appearances appear not to have been as effective as those of his successor.
In the end, the historic Republican gains seem to be due as much to the Democrats' campaign failures as to the Republicans' campaign successes.