Possible power change in D.C.

by Courtney Blanchard

Midterm elections in Minnesota are gaining national attention this year.

Minnesota has several congressional seats that could be a toss-up this year, and the outcomes could play a role in the larger picture of which party controls the House or the Senate in January.

University of California, San Diego political science professor Gary Jacobson spoke Thursday at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs about the possibility of a power change in Washington. The Center for the Study of Politics and Governance sponsored the event, and panelists Thomas Horner and Guy-Uriel E. Charles discussed the lecture afterward.

The prospect of power changing hands in Washington could have repercussions in the direction of the war in Iraq, education and immigration. These possibilities have roused students on both political sides in this litigious election season.

Political science senior Karl Kerr, the College Republicans’ representative-at-large, said, “The College Republicans’ No. 1 priority is always the election of Republican candidates.”

He doesn’t anticipate the Democrats sweeping the elections, but said the group is working hard to knock on doors and call voters to get their candidates elected.

Political science and philosophy senior Adam Terwey said he’s more likely to vote because the elections are so close.

Even though he leans to the Republican side, Terwey said it’s more important to focus on the individual candidates.

“Still, you have to take (party control) into consideration,” he said.

This is a common mentality among both sides of the political spectrum.

Immigration, the war in Iraq, health care and education are some of the top issues for Kristen Scobie, an individualized major senior.

She said she’d like to see Democrats take control because “change is always good,” but said it’s better to choose the right person than play political games.

Global studies senior Jacob Miller said he’ll vote for the Democratic candidates because of the “situational structure of politics.”

He said he would consider voting for a third party if the elections weren’t so close.

“In most circumstances, the third party is a waste of a vote,” Miller said. “Electing the Democrats is a step in the right direction.”

Jacobson said there’s a possibility that might happen. At the lecture, he analyzed recent polls, funding and approval ratings and estimated that the Democrats have a chance to gain control of the House, but probably not the Senate.

“The stakes could not be higher for the two sides,” he said.

A win for the Republicans could mean another two years of pushing through legislation and maintaining the administration’s strategies on the War on Terror, he said.

A win for the Democrats, Jacobson said, could mean President George W. Bush could face two years of judicial filibusters and testifying about the Iraq war in countless committee meetings.

The probability of a Democratic win

Jacobson said the approval ratings of the President and Congress are similar to the numbers in 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress away from Democrats and President Bill Clinton.

“Basically all the Democrats have to do is run around and say they’re not Republicans … this is the same position the Republicans were in, in 1994,” he said.

In general, midterm elections are a referendum on the current administration, Jacobson said.

Democrats are getting better grades on domestic issues, and a recent ABC/Washington Post poll surprisingly said people trusted how the Democrats would handle the war on terrorism, he said.

But polls can be misleading. Jacobson plotted data from 600 polls about the percentage of voters casting ballots for Democrats, ranging from 1999 to this September.

Democrats usually do three or four percentage points worse than general polls predict, he said.

This is a disadvantage to Democrats in close elections this year, of which they’ll need to take nearly all toss-up races to win the majority in both the House and Senate, Jacobson said.

There are more challenges for Democrats: the consistency of highly partisan voters and the distribution of party voting bases, he said. Democratic districts tend to be highly concentrated in cities, while Republican districts usually lead with a modest majority but are more spread out.

“Republicans enjoy a major structural advantage in the distribution of their voter base,” Jacobson said.

A polarizing season

“No president has been as polarizing as Bush,” Jacobson said.

He said this election season is likely to be more negative, and caters heavily to partisan politics. This division of the country, however, may actually be an advantage to Republicans.

“The Republican’s best strategy is to turn it into as partisan an election as they can,” he said, because of their widely-spread voter base.

Even so, Jacobson said he’s still predicting that the Republican’s won’t be able to hold on to both houses of Congress.

“As each day passes and nothing seems to change … I think it’s very likely for the Democrats to take the House,” he said.

Panelist Horner said that as a Republican, he wished he could be more optimistic, but thought Jacobson had painted a realistic picture.

“Minnesota is a pretty good bellwether over what has happened nationally,” he said, adding that the gap between the Republican majority and Democratic minority in the state House is closing.

“There still are 11 days, and that’s a lifetime in politics, and anything can happen,” Horner said.