There has never been a shortage of partisanship in presidential campaigns, as each party spends millions of dollars to support its nominee and rally its base. Yet while both sides have actively supported their candidates in recent years, there hasn’t been a lot of excitement.
Wake Us When It’s Over is the title of Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover’s book about the 1984 election between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. In 1996, everyone knew that Bill Clinton would have no trouble trouncing Bob Dole. And while the 2000 campaign was dramatic because it was close, the most suspense-filled part of the election came after Election Day, as the two parties challenged one another in Florida and the Supreme Court.
This year, however, is different. Due to Democratic anger, Republican determination, a longer general election campaign and an electorate that is closely following the campaign and remains sharply divided, the 2004 election is set to become the most partisan in decades.
“Everything’s going in the same direction,” says Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas and the co-editor of the book Choosing a President: The Electoral College and Beyond. “When the winds start sweeping off the Plains, there’s nothing to stop them.”
Democratic ire, Republican determination
Thanks to the 2000 Florida debacle and anger over the way the White House is handling Iraq, the economy and other issues, Democrats are determined not to allow President George W. Bush a second term. That was clear during the primaries, when voters rated electability as one of their chief reasons for choosing Senator John Kerry. The rise in grassroots groups and the record amount of money raised—first by Howard Dean last year, then by Kerry in the first quarter of this year—is proof that Democrats are revved up for November.
Republicans, on the other hand, are just as determined to keep Bush where he is. They’ve sent his campaign record amounts of money. First Lady Laura Bush is becoming more of a presence on the campaign trail, helping to raise money for congressional candidates, according to nonpartisan newspaper The Hill. White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove is reaching out to Bush’s base, determined that the evangelical voters who stayed home in 2000 make it to the polls this year. Bush’s opposition to gay marriage and defense of his tax cuts despite the rising deficit are signs that pleasing GOP diehards is his first concern.
The involvement of third-party groups, such as MoveOn.org and the Club for Growth, is helping to shrink the middle too. “So many forces are pushing toward a partisan election, not just the Democratic and Republican parties,” Loomis says. Earlier this month, the St. Petersburg (Florida) Democratic Club came under fire for urging that voters should “pull the trigger” on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Congressional races aren’t immune to the increased partisanship, either. The Club for Growth is supporting Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) in his bid to unseat Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), even though a Toomey win in the April 27 primary could cost Republicans that seat this fall. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) led efforts to redraw the Texas redistricting map and give the GOP an edge in House seats for the next decade. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) is campaigning for former Rep. John Thune (R-South Dakota), who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota). As Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported recently, it’s the first time in recent memory that one party’s leader has challenged the other on his home turf.
“You look someplace for an opposite trend and have a very difficult time finding it,” Loomis says.
A split electorate
Another reason for the split is that “We’re in a transitional phase in many different respects,” says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University and the author of several books on presidential and congressional campaigns. “The Bush Administration has changed the country’s approach to fiscal and foreign policy. Not surprisingly, that has spurred a lot of controversy.”
A New York Times/CBS News poll taken in mid-March showed that 65 percent of voters had already made up their minds about whether they would vote for Bush or Kerry (27 percent said it was too early). A Gallup poll conducted in early April showed that 61 percent of voters have already given the election quite a lot of thought (versus 33 percent who’ve thought about it only a little). There’s no doubt that the contested Democratic primary, unstable situation in Iraq and attention-grabbing hearings of the 9/11 commission have made Americans pay more attention to politics.
“We have a lot of big issues on the agenda,” West says. “People feel very engaged because the stakes are very high.”
Asked for whom they would vote, 47 percent of those surveyed in the Gallup poll chose Bush and 46 percent chose Kerry. In an early April Newsweek poll, 46 percent chose or would lean toward Kerry while 42 percent chose or would lean toward Bush. Those numbers, which are in the statistical margin of error, haven’tmoved much in the last few months. That’s because the electorate remains split almost down the middle between the parties, as we saw in the 2000 presidential campaign and in a Senate that’s now 51-48-1. Although party identification may be declining, it’s still a strong indicator of how people vote on Election Day.
“A small difference in the electorate can produce major political ramifications,” West says.
A number of factors contributed to this perfect storm of partisanship. Since Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, they’ve adopted hardball tactics—such as limiting Democrats’ ability to offer amendments to bills—to shut Democrats out of the legislative process. Then came Clinton’s impeachment and trial. “When you politicize impeachment, all bets are off,” Loomis says.
The Florida recount and Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords’ decision to leave the Republican party in 2001—handing control of the chamber to Democrats for 18 months—exacerbated tensions between the parties. Democrats also felt cheated by Bush’s claims in 2000 that he would change the tone in Washington and govern as a “compassionate conservative.” When they backed him on the No Child Left Behind bill in 2001, Bush undercut the legislation by inadequately funding it. Democrats are determined not to repeat that mistake.
With the candidates offering clearly contrasting images of where they want to take the country and the parties reaching out to their bases rather than the middle, where does that leave voters who haven’t made up their minds? “It’s going to be a nasty campaign, so there’s the risk that by November, people could hate both presidential candidates and be disengaged in the process,” West says. In other words, even though there’s a lot of voter mobilization going on, those people may decide to just stay home come Election Day.
Voters may also punish the party they see as being too partisan. In 1998, for example, House Democrats bucked the trend of the president’s party losing seats in a mid-term election after voters became angry that Republicans pressed for Clinton’s impeachment.
With the tone of the campaign already set, there’s no turning back. That may get core Democrats and Republicans to the polls, but it’s going to make it harder to govern once the election is over. Legislating happens because lawmakers compromise in order to get bills passed. If neither party is willing to yield, not much is likely to get done. And that result—rather than an exciting election—may be the lasting legacy of the 2004 campaign.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.