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The why of the win

The contours of Tuesday night’s results should come as no surprise to readers of this column.

The contours of Tuesday night’s results should come as no surprise to readers of this column.

There was a substantial anti-Republican wave in a fully nationalized election resulting in Democratic takeovers of both Houses of Congress. Exit polls suggest Democrats won the national congressional vote by about eight points. Fifty-seven percent disapproved of George Bush’s performance in office and 59 percent were either angry or dissatisfied with the administration. Intensity clearly favored opponents, as strong disapproval (42 percent) dramatically outstripped strong approval (just 19 percent).

Hostility extended to the Republican Congress, with whose leaders 56 percent were angry or dissatisfied. Sixty-one percent disapproved of Congressional performance.

Yet that wave crashed against a fairly stable political structure, limiting Republican losses. Winning the national House vote by seven points was sufficient for the GOP to capture over 50 seats in 1994, but a slightly larger margin this year netted Democrats many fewer. As I wrote earlier, it was easier for Democrats to win votes than to win seats — a fact reflected in the relatively large number of Democrats who lost 49-51. In the technical sense, many Democratic votes were wasted.

In 1994, the structure was less stable, with over 50 Democrats occupying seats won by Republican presidential candidates in the prior cycle. Going into this election, only 18 seats were mismatched in the Democrats’ favor.

Those looking for mono-causal explanations or seeking to downplay the role of the Republican culture of corruption will also be sorely disappointed, as will those who wanted to say the election was only about Iraq. In fact, four currents flowed together to produce this wave: upset at the President, anger at the war, concern about corruption and dissatisfaction with the economy.

To a greater extent than in any other congressional election for which we have data, those who voted for Democrats saw their ballot carrying a message of opposition to the president.

When asked about the importance of various issues in their voting calculus, the largest number (41 percent) said corruption and scandals were “extremely important.” Sixty percent of those voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates. The economy was next, with 39 percent citing it as “extremely important” — 59 percent of which supported Democrats. Iraq placed slightly behind, with 36 percent identifying it as central, of whom 60 percent voted Democratic.

The power of this wave came not from any one of these factors alone, but rather from their confluence. It is the intersection of so many sources of discontent that rendered the political environment uniquely toxic for Republicans.

Republicans counted on terrorism and national security to rescue them again. Earlier columns argued this strategy would fail — and it did. Terrorism remains an important concern — 39 percent said it was extremely important — but those voters only gave the GOP a seven-point margin. That stands in stark contrast to 2004, when terrorism voters overwhelmingly supported Republicans. The GOP failure on terrorism stems from both increasing confidence in Democrats and a dramatic decline in trust in the Republicans. In a stark reversal from the last two elections, this year more than half the country trusted Democrats to protect us from terrorism and only 58 percent trusted the GOP to do so.

All this evidence points to the intense nationalization of this election, as does one other datum from the exit polls: by almost two to one, voters said national issues were more important than local concerns in determining their vote.

Americans demanded change in our political institutions and they got it, albeit rather less than they would have liked. Of course, what they really want is a change in policy. It remains to be seen whether that fervent wish will be granted.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.