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Elections 2004

Interview with Thomas Mann
on Campaign 2004

Q: What are the major issues of Election 2004?

A: Every campaign over its course touches on a wide range of issues, but in the upcoming presidential election it seems very likely that there will be two key issues. One is the well-being of the economy that means economic growth, jobs, the overall condition of U.S. fiscal policy.

The second issue is security, physical security. That means Americans' sense of well-being vis-?is terrorism at home, and it means national security policy, particularly the aftermath of our military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Q: Do ordinary Americans care about foreign policy issues?

A: Public concerns about foreign policy wax and wane, depending on the international environment. More broadly, there were times during the Cold War when Americans cared very deeply about foreign policy; certainly the Vietnam War became an issue for Americans. The reason, I think, foreign policy will be important in the 2004 election is 9/11. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made clear to Americans that we were not as secure as we thought, and the vast majority of our citizens responded very positively to President Bush's argument that we have to carry the battle to the terrorists.

The events of September 11 mean that Americans now understand there is a clear link between security at home and our policies abroad, and certainly the president's dramatic increase in popularity with the American public, the widespread feeling that he demonstrated decisive leadership, was based upon his foreign policy actions, not domestic initiatives of the administration.

After 9/11 the Republicans opened a huge advantage in opinion polls as the party the public trusts to deal with national security policy, and maintaining that advantage is one of the keys to the President's reelection. Diminishing that advantage is certainly one of the goals of the Democrats in their effort to reclaim the White House.

The decisive military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq by U.S.-led coalitions have been followed by a much more complicated challenge of postwar reconstruction, providing opportunities for the administration's critics to make this an issue in the campaign.

Q: The previous presidential election, in 2000, was close between Bush and Gore. How does the closeness of that vote influence tactics and strategy in the upcoming election 2004?

A: The 2000 presidential election was resolved with the 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court to terminate the recount in the state of Florida. What's important here is that the outcome in 2000 reaffirmed the overriding reality that we are a 50-50 nation, divided almost equally between Democrats and Republicans at every level of elected office, and at the level of individual voters.

As a consequence, I think both parties' strategies anticipate a close election in 2004. Both parties realize how important it is to turn out their core supporters. So there will be a huge effort to mobilize individual voters. I think you're going to see a fascinating shift in resources from television advertising, although there will still be plenty of that, to voter-identification and "get-out-the-vote" efforts.

Both parties and their allied interest groups will make enormous investments in getting their supporters to the polls. Democrats may use unhappiness among their core supporters over the Florida outcome in 2000 as a motivating force in getting their people to the polls.

It's worth remembering, though, that in the 2002 midterm elections for seats in Congress, the Republicans won the turnout battle. They were more successful in mobilizing their supporters, and that accounted in large part for their success in the midterm elections.

Q: How do the parties get the voters to turn out?

A: In other countries with either mandatory voting or very high voting participation, these considerations don't arise in the same way. But in the United States, where a turnout of 50 percent of the age-eligible electorate is considered the norm in presidential elections, it matters a lot what is done to try to motivate citizens to turn up at the polls.

Now, if you ask what factors account for Americans voting or not voting, the predominant one tends to be information. Do potential voters actually know there's an election? Do they know who the candidates are? Do they know what differences exist between the candidates and the parties? Secondly, do they have an attachment to one of the parties? Are they linked in some way to the contending forces in the elections?

Third, has anyone asked them to vote? Have they had personal contact with others who have informed them of where the polling places are and when they should turn up to vote and the like? It's this last factor that is the focus of get-out-the-vote efforts.

What these efforts require is building organization at the local level, using computerized files to identify likely supporters, making contact with them by telephone, by direct mail, and, best of all, by personal contact, preferably from a trusted source someone they work with, someone in their community and then on election day making follow-up calls to make sure they've gone to the polls, in some cases offering to transport them to the polls. It's really quite an extraordinary effort.

Q: Naturally, mobilization works best with core constituencies. What are the core constituencies of each party?

A: Demographic analysis by the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan [http://www.umich.edu/~nes/nesguide/nesguide.htm] suggests differences between the bases of each of the political parties. It turns out the strongest Democratic supporters are African-Americans. They vote typically nine-to-one Democratic. Hispanics also tend to support Democrats, though the margin is two-to-one or less. Union households vote disproportionately Democratic. Lower-income working-class people tend to vote more Democratic, although some of them tend to be social conservatives, and a substantial chunk of them are attracted occasionally to Republican candidates. Social and cultural concerns are largely responsible for working-class and middle-class white males supporting the Republican Party.

Divorced people and families headed by a single parent tend to be more Democratic, while traditional married couples tend to be more Republican. Religious affiliation and religious practice and attendance are powerful predictors of who's in the Republican base. The more frequently one attends religious services, the more likely one is to be a Republican, and to vote Republican. Secularists tend to be Democratic.

Higher-income people are Republican in their orientation. This is especially true of those in commerce: from small business entrepreneurs to corporate executives.And yet, newly minted professionals highly educated and with graduate degrees increasingly vote Democratic.

Finally, there's a geographical difference to the base of each of the parties. We call it "red and blue states" based on the way the country divided on a television map of the United States after the last presidential election. The blue states on the map voted Democrat; these cluster on the East and West coasts, and in the northern tier of states. The red, or Republican, states tend to be located in the South, in the rural farm and Rocky Mountain states, and in some of the Midwest states.

You can also look at party affiliation within the states. Democrats tend to have their bases within the cities and the inner suburbs. Republicans are stronger in the outer suburbs and in the rural areas.

Democrats increasingly are strong in the growth high-tech areas, Republicans stronger in some of the areas of the country that have actually lost population some of the rural areas. Republicans have done very well in Southern suburbs of all kinds, including rapidly growing areas like the one around Atlanta (Georgia).

In sum, Republicans might be thought of as the party of religious and cultural conservatives; business men and women; the South, the mountain states, and the Midwest; and the outer suburbs and rural areas. Democratic supporters include minorities; secularists and social liberals; union households; big-city and low-income residents; and the East and West coasts. Of course, all these classifications are based on general tendencies. Among all demographic groups, there is diversity in political orientation.

Q. What advantages and disadvantages do incumbent presidents face in elections?

A: First of all, it's an historical fact that most sitting presidents running for reelection have been successful. Not all of course in fact, in recent history we've had several that have been unsuccessful. The first President Bush in 1992 and President Carter in 1980 both failed to win reelection. It's also the case that Gerald Ford, who had moved up to the presidency without having been elected to it, also failed in his reelection effort in 1976.

But, in general, presidents tend to win a second term. That's partly because they oftentimes avoid any primary challenge that would harm their candidacy by highlighting their vulnerabilities. However, the first President Bush, President Carter, and President Ford all faced primary campaign challenges. The fact that the current president, George W. Bush, is not facing any competition for the Republican nomination is a tremendous advantage to him.

Secondly, sitting presidents are in a position to dominate what Theodore Roosevelt called "the bully pulpit" that is, to set the agenda, and focus the attention of the public on matters that work to their advantage. Occasionally, by taking actions with respect to foreign policy and domestic economic policy, they are in a position to change the reality on the ground so it can work to their advantage in the election itself. They also have an easier time as incumbents raising money, garnering resources. They have benefits they can distribute to party activists that provide an advantage in the election itself.

Now the disadvantage for an incumbent is that presidents tend to be given credit for good things that happen during their term and blame for the bad things, whether they deserve the credit or blame. So, being in office during good times is a route to reelection. But being the incumbent president when the economy is sour, or when a foreign policy has gone bad is a distinct disadvantage. Elections in many respects are referendums on the perceived performance of the sitting administration.

If times are good, it's an advantage. If times are bad, it's clearly a disadvantage.

Q: Mr. Bush's political base as president is clear. On the other hand, most of the Democratic contenders have held a variety of offices congressman, senator, governor of a state, general in the military. How do these positions affect their chances of becoming president?

A: It is said that most members of the U.S. Senate, upon awakening each morning and looking in the bathroom mirror, see a potential president. But, as we say, many senators are "called," but few are actually chosen. The last person to win the presidency from the Senate was John Kennedy in 1960. Since then, we've had several senators win the nomination but lose the election. That includes Bob Dole in 1996 and George McGovern in 1972. It turns out that the Senate is not a particularly attractive launching point for a presidential election.

Most candidates who have won the presidency have come either from the vice presidency or from a governorship. The vice presidency is a natural base for running for president, although a sitting vice president is not always successful, as Al Gore learned in 2000. Governorships have proven to be particularly fertile ground for running for president most recently, George W. Bush; before him, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter. It's really been quite an extraordinary record. A military career provided a fertile recruitment ground for 19th century presidents, but in the modern era only Dwight Eisenhower has moved from military commander to commander-in-chief.

Q: How will campaign finance laws influence the outcome of this election?

A: George Bush was the first successful presidential candidate to decline matching public (U.S. government) funds in the nominating process in 2000. Therefore, by law, he was not subject to spending limits during that time. As a consequence, he raised in year 2000 over $100 million and outspent his Democratic opponent. That would not have been permissible if he took public funds. In 2004 as the candidate contribution limits from individuals have doubled according to the law from $1,000 to $2,000, the Bush campaign will once again forgo the public matching funds and raise as much as $200 million during the nominating process.

Without any challenger for the Republican nomination, President Bush's campaign will be able to use that money to help define in their terms the Democratic nominee for president to the public, and to begin to build a get-out-the-vote local organizational effort that will help them in the general elections. That's a tremendous advantage.

None of the Democratic candidates have demonstrated the same ability to raise that amount of money during the party primary season. If they accept the public matching funds, they will be held to spending closer to $50 million; most of that will be spent in the early primary campaign in 2003 and the early months in 2004 trying to win the nomination. Then, they will basically have little or no money left in the period after a nominee emerges and their party convention. Given this potential disparity, look for one or more of the Democratic candidates to decline matching public funds and raise and spend as much money as they can.

After the primary campaigns are over and the party nominating conventions take place, the candidates make another decision on whether to accept public funding for the general election. It's expected that both President Bush and the Democratic nominee will accept the public matching funds.

Q: Does money make all that big a difference in the outcome of presidential contests?

A: Money makes more of a difference in some races and under some circumstances than it does in others. It's extremely important in House races, in races for the U.S. Senate, and in races for governorships, because a lot of money is required for challengers to get known to voters and really have an opportunity to break through the veil of anonymity that exists for most of them.

It's important in the presidential nominating process, where most of the candidates are relatively unknown and they need the money to advertise themselves and their platforms and to build organizations. In a general election, it tends to be less important, because there's a certain amount of "free" media attention, due to the importance of the contest at that point. There are televised debates that occur. People rely substantially on their party identification in viewing the candidates. Nonetheless, in a close election, money can still make a difference at the margin.

Q: In 2004, will it be sufficient for the Democratic Party presidential candidate to criticize President Bush as sitting president; or do the Democrats need some kind of positive theme to win the election?

A: For Democrats to be successful, they need two things. By far the most important is they need a reason for voters to deny George Bush a second term. That is not so much an alternative program as a negative referendum on how the country has been doing under George Bush's leadership.

For Democrats to have a chance of regaining the White House and regaining control of the Congress, they're going to need a lot of voters who express something like this: "I feel less secure about my economic well-being and less secure physically because of the ambiguous success in the war against terrorism and the muddled situation in Iraq." That's a necessary though probably not sufficient condition for the Democrats to win the White House in 2004.

Secondly, the Democrats need to pass a threshold of credibility. They need to have a candidate who is trusted by the American people to protect our security and to pursue a policy course that isn't wacky or extreme or seeming to pose more risks than opportunities for Americans.

So, yes, the Democrats have to nominate a candidate who puts forward a plausible national security strategy, a plausible economic and domestic policy strategy. Most Americans are not going to compare President Bush's policy prescriptions directly with the Democrats'. But rather, in the case that Americans decide the President's record does not necessarily merit renewal, they're going to then take a closer look at the Democrats and say, "Can we trust them?" That's where the opposition party has to have a plausible, positive alternative.

Q: There's an old saw that during presidential primaries the candidates take more extreme positions as they pander to their party base the Democrats on the left, the Republicans on the right. Is that the case and will it influence political behavior over the next year?

A: Successful presidential candidates have not fallen prey to that pattern in recent elections. George Bush in 2000, for example, figured out a way to run for the Republican nomination by offering substantive policy to his conservative base that made them very happy but using a rhetoric of moderation and compassion that prevented him from being characterized as extremely conservative or right-wing after he won the nomination.

Bill Clinton rejected the traditional left-vs-right approach within his own party and tried to appeal in other ways to both the base and the swing voters. Yes, activists in primaries tend to be more ideologically extreme, to the right for the Republicans, to the left for the Democrats; but it's possible to frame appeals and issues in ways that don't necessarily damage your position in the general election campaign.

Q: Do you see an increased role for the Internet in this presidential election?

A: The way to view the Internet in this context is not as a mode of mass communication, not as a substitute for television advertising. Instead, it has become important as a form of campaign organization - recruiting and organizing volunteers, raising money, coordinating grassroots activities, disseminating information to supporters. Howard Dean has built on John McCain's success in the 2000 election in raising substantial amounts of money over the Internet. Dean and other Democratic Party candidates are using it as a way of building organization.

For their part, the Bush forces also understand its importance. They're making active use of the Internet, using it to raise money, build their local organizations, and to make sure they have a way of communicating with Republican activists in a way that both inspires and efficiently allocates resources.

So in those senses the Internet will be an important force in this election.

Q: Of course, there will be elections in the House and Senate as well, in addition to the presidential election. How do these races look?

A: Right now, we don't see the makings of a landslide election for either party. It looks more likely to be a close election.

The Republican Party has been the majority party in the House of Representatives since the 1994 election. They also had a narrow Senate majority, which they lost briefly when Republican Senator Jim Jeffords defected from his party and became an Independent. The Republicans regained their Senate majority in the 2002 election. Many analysts looking at the structure of House and Senate elections have concluded that Republicans are likely to hold that majority for the rest of the decade, absent some unforeseen tidal wave moving to the advantage of the Democratic Party.

That's partly a result of the decline of the number of competitive electoral districts in the House of Representatives, which is a consequence of many factors. In recent years, this has resulted in part from the success of the Republicans in using the state-level redistricting process to more efficiently allocate their voters across congressional districts. In this coming election, out of 435 House races, we are likely to have only ten percent seriously contested. And, with the Republican advantage as the incumbent party, raising more money, and having had success in redistricting, the Republicans are the odds-on favorite to hold their majority.

In the Senate, there are more Democratic seats up than Republican seats. Remember, a third of the Senate is up for reelection in any given election year. They have staggered six-year terms. More Democratic seats are up and those Democratic seats tend to be in the "red" (more conservative) states, in states that George Bush won in 2000.

So, only if you have a presidential landslide in favor of the Democrats, would the Democrats have an opportunity to become the majority party in Congress.

Thomas Mann, a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., is the author of numerous books and articles on American politics. He was interviewed by Paul Malamud, an editor with the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs.
 
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Updated: March 2004