The Magazine

POLLS APART

Oct 12, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 05 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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START WITH THIS ANOMALY: Most Americans say they oppose impeaching Bill Clinton, yet almost all signs point to a victory in the November 3 congressional elections for the Republicans, who are more likely to vote for impeachment. The explanation lies in turnout: All the evidence we have from recent polls and from August and September primaries indicates that core Republicans are much more likely to go to the polls than core Democrats.


This is not the typical pattern. In most elections, people who vote scarcely differ in party preference from people who don't. But this year -- even after the supposed Clinton uptick following the release of the videotape of the president's grand-jury testimony on September 21 -- the difference between all adults or all registered voters and likely voters is greater than I can remember in 25 years of watching polls.


This year, the more intense a person's engagement with politics, the more likely he is to say he'll vote Republican. Since 1974, only about a third of those eligible have gone to the polls in off-year congressional elections, and among this group the Republican edge increases the more committed the respondents are to participating in politics.


Thus, in the September 22-23 New York Times/CBS News poll, among all registered voters, Republicans trailed in the generic House vote -- Which party's candidate will you vote for? -- by 39 percent-44 percent. Likely voters (who say they will definitely vote, are paying attention to the campaign, and voted in either 1994 or 1996) gave the Republicans a statistically insignificant advantage, 44 percent-43 percent (mirroring the 1996 House-election result, 49 percent-48.5 percent Republican). But among more likely voters (who say they will definitely vote, are paying attention, and voted in both 1994 and 1996), the Republican margin was 50 percent-41 percent. And among the most likely voters (who say they will definitely vote, are paying a lot of attention, and voted in 1994 and 1996), the margin was 53 percent-41 percent Republican. Translated into popular votes, that last would produce a Republican majority larger than any since the 1920s.


Similarly, the ABC News/Washington Post survey conducted September 25-28, while the Clinton White House was crowing about its recovery, showed all adults favoring Democratic House candidates by 51 percent-42 percent, but likely voters favoring Republicans 49 percent-46 percent -- very similar to the lead Republicans held among likely voters at this stage in 1994, when they would go on to carry the House vote 52 percent-45 percent. In this survey, all adults opposed impeachment hearings by 55 percent-42 percent. But likely voters favored hearings by 53 percent-45 percent. Still further confirmation: The CNN/ Time poll of September 23-24 showed registered voters favoring Democratic House candidates by 48 percent-41 percent, but likely voters favoring Republicans 49 percent-45 percent.


This pattern is repeated in recent polls in the California and New York Senate races. The Los Angeles Times poll showed Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer ahead by 47 percent-39 percent among all voters. But among likely voters, Republican Matt Fong led 48 percent-43 percent. The New York Daily News/WABC poll showed Democratic congressman Charles Schumer leading Republican incumbent Alfonse D'Amato by 50 percent-43 percent among all voters. But among likely voters D'Amato led 49 percent-46 percent.


Yet more corroboration comes from actual turnout in primaries. Earlier this year, I advanced the hypothesis that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal would reduce turnout among strong Democrats, especially the feminist Left, which this decade has been the greatest source of energy, enthusiasm, and elan in the Democratic party (just as the religious Right has been in the Republican party). But when I looked at turnout in primaries from March to July, I found no such effect. In the August and September primaries I did.


In Colorado, which held seriously contested races in both parties' primaries for senator and governor on August 11, 61 percent of the two-party turnout was Republican, though only 53 percent of the two-party registration is Republican. The numbers were similar in Nevada and Wyoming. In New York, Democratic turnout for the September 15 primary to choose D'Amato's opponent was down 37 percent from the Democratic turnout for the same seat in 1992. In Florida down-ballot races on September 1, two-party turnout ranged from 48 percent to 52 percent Republican, while two-party registration is only 46 percent Republican. The Florida exit poll showed Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush leading Democrat Buddy MacKay by a whopping 58 percent-29 percent -- the best poll result for Bush in the whole cycle.