SHRINKING AND EXPANDING THE ELECTORATE THIS FALL

by David P. Rebovich The evidence is mounting. President George W. Bush’s approval ratings have declined and are now in the mid to low 30’s. Even fewer Americans believe the nation is headed in the right direction. And now several members of the GOP’s rank and file are finding fault with the President and his fellow Republicans in Washington, D.C. All of this is so disturbing that some Republican political consultants are already conceding the House of Representatives to the Democrats, who need to pick up fifteen seats to become the majority party in that chamber. For folks in New Jersey, the question is whether this anti-Bush, anti-Republican sentiment will affect the reelection prospects of any of the state’s six Republican congressmen. Six months before Election Day, there is no specific evidence that suggests that any congressman, Republican or Democrat, is in danger of losing this fall. While New Jersey is generally a “blue” state, congressional districts here, as in most states, are drawn to be safe for incumbents. Incumbency is also an advantage because it provides good name recognition, which is hard to achieve here given the state’s fragmented media and citizens’ reliance on New York and Philadelphia television for political news. Incumbents also have the ability to raise money, an important consideration in a state where media-based campaigns are extremely expensive. And current congressmen have a record to run on and typically can point to how they have helped their district and its constituents with their votes in Congress. No incumbent congressman in New Jersey won by less than 15 percent in 2004, including those Republicans, even though President Bush lost the state to John Kerry by seven points But, as Laura Mansnerus, the respected State House reporter for The New York Times, wrote in her column on April 28th, redistricting practices have resulted in some districts having Republican congressmen who are more conservative than most of their constituents. This point is made by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson in their well-researched book, OFF CENTER. Now the traditional advantages of incumbency will make it difficult, claim Hacker and Pierson, for the Democrats to dislodge the Republicans from the House, even staunch conservatives who are out of sync with their more moderate districts. When Ms. Mansnerus explained this thesis to me, I noted that a similar point has been made about some ultra-liberal Democrats in Congress. But the topic here is Republicans, and Hacker and Pierson identify Scott Garrett of New Jersey’s 5th congressional district as an example of the “too conservative for his district” phenomenon they described. Michael Ferguson of the 7th district is another Republican who falls into this category. Both incumbents represent sprawling districts with a mix of rural and urban areas and growing suburbs. Those suburbs have become more populated by college-educated professionals who may be fiscal conservatives but may also see themselves as social moderates. Nonetheless, as Ms. Mansnerus adds, Garrett and Ferguson received only a 5 out of 100 rating from the liberal group, Americans for Democratic Action, which analyzes congressmen’s votes on a number of issues. While such conservatism has not been a barrier to election in the past, will it be so this year? Well, this is a difficult question. Garrett and Ferguson have not made it a practice to run away from their records. And in 2004, President Bush did carry Garrett’s district by 13 percent and Ferguson’s by 7 percent, causing one to question how moderate voters there can be. But in a national political environment that is not favorable for Republicans, in a state where President Bush has only a 30 percent approval rating, and in districts where many, perhaps even most, voters are not as conservative as their congressmen, are Garrett and Ferguson in danger? There are two matters that Republican congressmen in any potentially competitive district should be concerned about this year. One has to do with the President’s and Congress’s lower approval ratings among not just voters in general but among Republicans, and conservative ones at that, who may not show up at the polls in numbers that GOP congressmen need. The other is the possibility that Democrats may be able to expand the electorate, normally an extremely difficult task in a midterm. The possibility of a shrinking Republican turnout and a larger Democratic is of course due to the public’s perception that the President and Congress have performed poorly on issues like the war in Iraq, immigration, energy and gas costs, and the budget deficit. A recent AP-Ipsos Poll shows that 45 percent of self-described conservatives disapprove of the President’s performance, 65 percent disapprove of Congress’s, and 60 percent believe that nation is headed in the wrong direction. Democrats hope such discontent keeps some Republicans home on Election Day. For their part, Democratic congressional candidates, including Paul Aronsohn and Linda Stender who will likely challenge Garrett and Ferguson respectively, will attempt to do two things. They will try to make this election a referendum on President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress. And, they will endeavor to show how Garrett and Ferguson, through their specific votes and public pronouncements, have supported the President’s policies and programs that most Americans and New Jerseyans do not believe have succeeded. In the process, they hope to reinforce the negative opinions already held by much of the electorate and to attract to the polls people who can be convinced that they have a significant interest in checking the Bush-led Republicans in Washington. The latter include young people, unaffiliated women, Reagan Democrats, and middle class moderates. What should Garrett and Ferguson do? A standard practice for incumbents seeking office when their party is under the gun is to focus on one’s own personal and political attributes and district issues. Also expect Garrett and Ferguson to explain their own nuanced positions on complex policy issues and how these represent improvements over what has come out of the White House and Congress. In this sense, they can perhaps retain credibility with conservatives in the party base who have become disillusioned with the President because of his big spending and their concerns about his competence on some key policy issues. And maybe they can demonstrate to moderates who have supported them in the past that their own competence on issues negates the criticisms of their Democratic opponents. But this means working hard to keep their campaigns about themselves and not about the President and Congress as a whole. Unless the President’s and Congress’s performance and approval ratings improve, this will not be easy. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a weekly column, “On Politics,” for NEW EJRSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine and is a member of CQPolitics.com’s Board of Advisors that offers weekly commentary on national political developments.

SHRINKING AND EXPANDING THE ELECTORATE THIS FALL