Tables turned in US mid-term polls

Democrats likely to take Congress as voters turn sour on Iraq policy.

THE mid-term congressional elections on Nov 7 will turn the tables on a long-established US electoral pattern.

Foreign policy has always been a solid vote bank for the Republicans. But this time, there has been a run on voters largely because of what is seen to be the Bush administration’s failures on this score.

The elections could turn out to be a watershed. Democrats may just secure control of both Houses of Congress – a political outcome that has happened just twice in post-war American history.

In 1974, the Democrats thrashed the Republicans to win the Senate and the House of Representatives following then-president Richard Nixon’s Watergate fiasco. And 20 years later, the Republicans swept the two chambers during the Clinton administration as his Democratic party was embroiled in a string of scandals.

The outlook is just as ominous for the Republicans today.

A Pew Research Centre survey released on Thursday found that the Democrats continue to maintain a double-digit advantage nationally. They are also leading by the same margin in the competitive districts that will determine which party controls the House of Representatives.

Nationally, the Democrats hold a 49-38 per cent lead among registered voters and a nearly identical 50-39 per cent lead among those most likely to cast their ballots in less than two weeks time.

The cause for this major swing?

Iraq looms large above everything else.

Harvard Professor Thomas Patterson, a leading expert on American electoral politics and voter behaviour, told The Straits Times: “Iraq is the biggest single factor for the shift in opinion. This election is really a referendum on Iraq.”

Indeed, Pew found that American views of the Iraq war have grown much more negative over the past month. Some 59 per cent of them now believe that the US military effort there is not going well.

And Republicans, who have been steadfast supporters of the war, are now also sceptical against a backdrop of ongoing reports of violence and worsening sectarian strife in Iraq – and the rising death toll of American troops.

Republicans running in some close races have also distanced themselves from President George W. Bush on a problem that appears to have replaced pocketbook issues as a main concern for American voters.

Ms Nancy Roman of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) noted that mid-term elections were previously dominated by concerns over jobs and education. “Now people are going to their town hall meetings and wondering – what are you going to do about Iraq and what are you going to do about Iran?,” she said.

The CFR believes that foreign policy will play a significant role in the forthcoming polls. Besides Iraq, there are several other burning issues that could have a bearing on voters.

One is terrorism. Since Sept 11, the American public has believed that the Republicans would not only handle the problem better than the Democrats, but would also do a better job at protecting the public.

Today, the political environment seems to be shifting. According to some polls, Americans now do not think that a terrorist attack is more likely under a Democrat-controlled Congress.

Immigration is another hot issue.

One of the most controversial proposals in the debate about immigration would create a high-tech, 1,125km fence along the US border with Mexico. Approved by the House last month – and signed by Mr Bush on Thursday – the barrier is modelled on an existing 22km fence between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico.

Supporters say the fencing would bolster homeland security and curb illegal immigration. Opponents decry it as a new “Berlin Wall”, antithetical to the American ideal of an open society.

Emotions surrounding this issue are high, as seen in the massive pro- and anti-immigration rallies across the country in recent months. For the Republican Party, it could be another blow as immigrant voters – the fastest growing group of new voters in the US – are alienated.

Of course, other non-foreign policy issues will also have a bearing on voters. Petrol prices, health-care costs and low wages will certainly factor in the elections.

Polling shows that voters have a downbeat attitude about the economy. According to Pew, lower petrol prices and gains in the stock market have not had a positive impact on economic attitudes.

Just one in three Americans says the national economy is in good shape, while nearly twice as many view it as being only fair or poor.

Voters are more focused on national issues than in any previous congressional election. Americans have a sour view of the economy but, clearly for many here, it is foreign policy issues like Iraq that will ultimately decide the outcome.

And here, the writing is on the wall for the Republicans.

Said Prof Patterson: “There is no doubt that Americans are disgusted and will take it out on the Republicans. The question now is by how big a margin the Democrats will win.”

THE IRAQ FACTOR

“Iraq is the biggest single factor for the shift in opinion. This election is really a referendum on Iraq.”

GOP PAYS THE PRICE

“There is no doubt that Americans are disgusted and will take it out on the Republicans. The question now is by how big a margin the Democrats will win.”
HARVARD PROFESSOR THOMAS PATTERSON, a leading expert on American electoral politics and voter behaviour

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