GOP Likely to Remain in Control of Congress

A National Policy Analysis paper published April 1996 by the National Center for Public Policy Research, 501 Capitol Court, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002, 202/543-4110, Fax (202) 543-5975, E-Mail [email protected]

It's no secret that the GOP has had its share of problems when it comes to regulatory issues in general and environmental issues in particular. What began as an ambitious effort to aid small property owners, small businesses and generate greater opportunity for minorities through common-sense changes to environmental and other regulations quickly grew to be perceived as an assault not only on the environment, but on human health and safety. A poll conducted late last year by Republican pollster Linda DiVall found that just 21% of the American public believe that environmental laws have gone too far while 36% believe they haven't gone far enough.

Emboldened by such findings, Democrats have identified the environment as an important swing issue. Democrat pollster Celinda Lake has even suggested that Democrats could make substantial inroads with Republican voters -- particularly Republican women -- citing poll data showing Democrats with a 50% advantage on environmental issues among this group.

But if Democrats believe they can wrest control of both Houses of Congress and maintain control of the White House on environmental issues they are deluding themselves. For one thing, the environment has consistently rated at or near the bottom of the list of issues that are most important to the public. A 1995 Times Mirror poll, for example, found that only 15 percent of Americans had ever voted for or against a candidate on the basis of their environmental votes. Further, the GOP's poor environmental polling numbers are based not on the party's actual policies, but on a caricature of those policies. While the national press is fond of pointing to poor polling numbers as evidence that the environment is a liability for Republicans, they frequently neglect to mention that once the public is presented with an accurate picture of Republicans' positions, the publics' view changes. For example, Linda DiVall's poll found that 78% of the public favored the GOP's five-point plan for hazardous waste, 45% supported its Endangered Species Act reform proposal (compared to 41% against) and 44% favored the party's Safe Drinking Water Act proposal (compared to 39%), once they learned what these proposals would actually do.

The truth is, whatever issues emerge over the next several months, Democrats are going to have a very difficult time wresting control of Congress from the Republicans. Its a simple matter of arithmetic.

In the House -- assuming there are not further defections from the House's current Democrat roster -- Democrats need a net gain of at least 19 seats. Due to the enormous advantages of incumbency, the greatest opportunities for congressional seats to change hands have historically been in open seats -- those seats in which the incumbent decided to retire, was forced from office or decided to seek higher office. Again, the numbers simply don't favor the Democrats: Democrats currently have 26 open seats at risk while Republicans only have 15. Worse yet for Democrats, three-fifths of its open seats are in the South where Republican support is surging. The Democrats' fundraising numbers also don't look so good: In 1995, the average House Democrat raised $184,633 while the average Republican raised $246,331 -- a difference of $61,698.

Democrats face similar obstacles in the Senate: The retirements of key southern Democrats -- including Sam Nunn (D-GA), J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) and Howell Heflin (D-AL) -- make Democrat control a long shot.

And what about the presidential contest? We've all heard media reports that President Clinton has a substantial lead -- more than 20 points in some cases -- over Bob Dole in the polls. There's some evidence that the media is being selective in what polls it chooses to share with the public: A poll released by Knight Ridder in February found Clinton with a statistically insignificant lead over Dole of 38% to 34%. The same poll found that 60% of the public believes "character" is more important than whether or not a candidate shares their views. This could spell trouble for the President, given his ongoing Whitewater problems.

Predictions: Republicans to make marginal gains in House; no change in Senate; White House too close to call.

By David Ridenour

David Ridenour is Vice President of The National Center for Public Policy Research where he oversees the group's Environmental Policy Task Force and other programs.


The National Center for Public Policy Research
501 Capitol Court, N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002
202/543-4110
Fax (202) 543-5975
E-Mail: [email protected]

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