Pollsters say there's no contest: Voters are more anxious about the economy than terrorism.
So it makes sense that the Democrats would zero in on pocketbook worries in their bid to grab Congressional seats.
But the strategy's been a bust. Though polls show Republicans have lost economic credibility over the past six months, Democrats haven't managed to pull ahead much on the issue -- not enough, anyway, to likely change control in the House.
So where did Democrats go wrong? One reason may be that voters simply don't buy the idea of partisan fix-its for the economy. Also, most likely voters are in decent financial shape, though the economy is weak. Then there's the mixed-message problem, with Democrats trotting out Republican-like economic plans.
"While the Democrats are able to ask the question, 'Are you better off than you were two years ago?' and a lot of people would say, 'No,' I don't think there's a sense out there that either party has a plan to deal with the stock market or get the economy back up," said John Zogby, head of Zogby International, an independent polling firm.
Voters prefer Democrats' economic policies by a mere 2% over the Republicans' (43% vs. 41%), according to a Zogby poll released Oct. 31. "Neither party's going into this election with an edge," he said.
The same poll showed that the economy and jobs scored as the top election issue for 20% of voters, easily outstripping the second-ranked issue, education, named by only 12%. Taxes came in third, while terrorism and safety tied with health care for fourth place, identified as the top issue by a mere 7% of voters.
Blowing an Advantage
To some degree, Democrats have blown a potential advantage. "Since a Republican is president and the economy is not particularly good, the expectation would be that Democrats could benefit. Normally that's what happens in midterm elections, which, after all, are a midterm report card" on the party in power, said Larry Sabato, an election analyst and government professor at the University of Virginia.
Democrats have had trouble winning attention, with the media lately preoccupied with a potential war in Iraq and the pursuit for the Washington, D.C.-area (allegedly now apprehended) sniper, he added.
Democrats also may have confused voters by failing to offer a coherent alternative to Republican ideas -- even cribbing economic strategies from their opponents. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) recently offered a proposal for $75 billion in tax cuts, prompting a leading Republican to suggest he'd copied from the GOP playbook. The proposal was at odds with other Democrats' calls to balance the budget.
But it fits with the party's gradual movement toward more free-market, GOP-style economic orthodoxies. It was a movement characterized by the Clinton Administration of the '90s, which stole Republicans' thunder by pushing through a balanced budget and welfare-to-work legislation. The two parties today "are standing so close together, in many cases it's hard to tell them apart," said Donald Straszheim, the former chief economist at Merrill Lynch who runs his own economic research firm.
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In any case, Republicans are clearly gloating over the Democrats' failure to capitalize on pocketbook issues. "For weeks now the Democrats have been arguing that voters would receive their 401(k), IRA and other investment fund reports, see the carnage and blame Republicans," said a recent report from Republican polling firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates. Fat chance, the firm said, pointing to polls it conducted in several dozen Congressional districts.
The polling outfit found that more than two-thirds of likely voters in battleground districts own a 401(k) or IRA -- but far from blaming the GOP administration for the slumping market, the poll showed equity owners lean solidly Republican, with the typical likely voters supporting generic GOP candidates by 51% to 36%.
The 'Downturn Divide'
Meanwhile, Democratic candidates prevailed only among the relatively small group of voters who rate both the economy and their own financial position as lousy. Fabrizio Vice President Robert Moran said the results showcase what he calls the "downturn divide": While the macroeconomy has suffered, most voters are actually doing reasonably well.
"Democrats have been hoping this was going to be like 1982, when Reagan was in office and the economy washed out a bunch of Republicans," said Moran. "But back then we had something like 10% unemployment. Now it's something closer to 5%. The underlying economic conditions aren't nearly as bad as some examples of when Democrats have actually won elections based on the economy."
Democrats admit they're not likely to score sizeable political gains this year. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman ventures that there's a "greater likelihood" his party will maintain leadership in the Senate, where it has a shaky one-seat advantage. He sounds less hopeful about the Republican-controlled House, saying chances to overcome a six-seat deficit are "still in the realm of possibility."
"The whole set of issues around national security and terrorism has certainly elevated the standing of President Bush, and there's a halo effect from that elevated standing to the Republican Party in general," Mellman said. On top of that, he added, Republicans have tried to "blur the differences" with reform-minded Democrats on issues such as overhauling the pension system.
Certainly, the GOP has talked up its own plans for righting the economy. "Republicans have done a number of things most Americans are aware of, like two tax cuts and $70 billion worth of stimulus," points out Chuck Gabriel, senior Washington analyst for Prudential.
He added that a recent poll showed voters are more likely to blame the continuing downturn on normal business cycles and the war on terrorism than on the Republican party.
Indeed, others say the Democrats' strategy has failed to gain traction simply because voters are now less likely to view the economy as a partisan issue. "I believe that over time, people are finally catching onto the truth," said Sabato, "which is that nobody controls a $10-trillion a year economy."