Spinning Out of Control:
Media Coverage of the 1998 Elections
The Fundamental Things Apply
As Time Goes By
During the week prior to the elections in 1998, the Republicans came out swinging with campaign ads
targeted in key races in California and Kentucky and a few other select places. The ads asked if voters
wanted to reward Clinton by sustaining the Democrat's strength, and directly chastized Clinton and his
supporters for his misdeeds and their defense of him. Democrats put their own ads together in response,
but they were rather weak, suggesting that all the Republicans had done in Congress was to investigate
Clinton, while the 'real issues' of social security, health care, and campaign finance reform had supposedly
gone unaddressed. This despite Clinton's claims that he had saved social security and balanced the budget,
as if, of course, the Congress had no role in that, and as if those things had actually been accomplished.
The Democrats seemed to running scared, with assertions that they would be the winners if the Republicans
gained but a few seats in the elections or they somehow were able to hold the line to the appearance of a
draw. One might wonder how it is that if Clinton wins the Presidential race with less than half the votes, and
his party losses seats or merely holds its own in the legislative races, this is touted as not only a victory
for Democrats, but actually a landslide, but when Republicans hold onto control of the Congress, and
continue to make widespread gains in other elections across the country, it is interpreted as a loss.
That in itself is amazing. A few more elections in which Democrats 'win' that way, and the Democrats'
strength in the Congress will have dwindled to a shadow of its one-time monopoly. But the media took
up the Democrat banner in attacking the Republican ads. That is not a surprise, of course, but it does
once again demonstrate the unadulterated bias in the broadcast media. They bemoaned the ads, and
parroted each other and the Democrat leaders in predicting a voter 'backlash' against the GOP for these
campaign techniques. This is what 'negative' campaigning has become if you are a broadcast journalist.
It consists of calling the Democrats for their record in office.
On the other hand, the Democrat ads run across the country, charging GOP candidates with being
bankrolled by Gingrich's legions and marching in lockstep as part of Gingrich's army to be able to
slash spending, came just short of the Democrat rhetorical chants of Republican efforts to starve
children and let old people die in the streets. They did accuse Republicans of wanting to cut
social security and leave senior citizens hurting. But, apparently, that is not negative campaigning!
Nor is it dirty politics for Democrat candidates to tell black voters that a vote for Republicans is a vote
to undo the work of Martin Luther King, which they have been saying in select areas across the nation.
A St Louis radio ad told mostly black listeners that a nonvote was a vote for burned churches and crosses,
and that Gingrich and the Republicans had worked hard to roll back the victories the Democrats have won
for them, had slashed spending on school lunches and Headstart, and nonvoting was a vote for that. There
was a clear attempt at linkage of the burning crosses and churches with Republican 'cuts'. (That ad, by the
way, was run in Gebhardt's district -- perhaps he is more vulnerable than we think). In Detroit, Mayor Dennis
Archer reiterated the latter half of that message to his discredit even as he said nothing of the former, to his
credit, but he also called on voters to turn out to help Clinton by name, to his discredit. Black voters should
be outraged. In California, Republican candidate for Senate Fong has been harangued by the pro-gay rights
lobby because he does not favor special rights for groups such as gays! We should all be outraged.
The phenomenon has become commonplace. So much so, in fact, that it scarcely warrants attention
because voters have become so used to hearing the hypocrisy and one-sided news bias that they may
be largely tuning it completely out. The ads are probably, then, intended to attempt to shore up the Democrat
base vote. There have been signs to indicate that a lot of those voters have been so turned off by Clinton's
antics and his party's attempts to cover them up, that many would not vote this year. Given that, the
small gains anticipated for Republicans could turn into a rout. Zogby recently reported numbers of some 46
% of voters planning on voting for the Republican candidate for Congress with only 38 % intending to vote
for the Democrat. Now, that does leave some 16 % apparently undecided, but the clear indication is of a
highly favorable atmosphere for the GOP. Many of those undecided may be those who have voted Democrat
in the past, but were finding it harder to do so this time around, and who might have consequently sat out
this vote. Others may be those Perotistas who are being motivated into casting their votes, and who will
generally vote primarily for Republicans as they have in the past but since they do not wish to be labeled
Republican will not say one way or the other. There also appears to be a phenomenom of voters caught in a
crossfire of harsh campaigning opting not to vote as if they are unable to decide between two sets of claims.
If Democrat rhetoric in recent years has not been intended to function thusly as a depressant on turnout
among such elements of the electorate, it should have been, because it has certainly fit the bill. They at the
very least have raised 'information costs' to prohibitive levels by poisoning the waters.
The greatest problem that pollsters face, other than the obvious partisan bias of most of them, is that half of
the people they call to poll hang up on them the instant they find out that it is a poll they are being asked to
participate in. The scientific sampling technique is a strained allegory that leaves their guesses little more
than ecological fallacies of composition. It remains a wonder that they ever come very close at all in their
The last time this rhetorical ruse was heard at this level was 1994 when the GOP captured control of both
houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. The shock at that reverberated through the broadcast
media. They still have not gotten over it. But they are once again deluding themselves. On Meet the Press
aired on Sunday, November 1st, Tim Russert was still asking Gebhardt what he would do as the next Speaker
of the House, as if there was some possibility of that occuring this year! Gebhardt tried to contend that the
investigation of Clinton would go on, given those unlikely developments, but bemoaned the current House
leadership's insistence that that investigation reach beyond the perjury question to inclusion of filegate,
Chinagate, Whitewater, cattlegate, campaign finance irregularities, connections to the Riatis, international
drug dealers, and the rest, which is where the real problem lies.
Not even in 1996, when their sustained droll managed to hold Republican strength at a virtual standstill, did
we witness this sort of pitch and clamor of hysteria. The Democrats and their broadcast media buddies
were clearly worried. They went out of their way for days trying to convince the public and maybe
themselves that Democrats were going to do better than had been expected, and then the major networks
cut back on the coverage of election returns.
In the wake of the elections, we are hearing all sorts of spin on what happened and what it means. Democrats
did so much better than expected, it is claimed, even reversing the trend throughout this century for the
party in control of the White House to lose seats in the off- year contests. That does not really apply to
this circumstance. First of all, it is a phenomenon largely based on what happens to a Democrat controlled
Congress in such situations, and we do not have that. It is also based on a President who 'won' a previous
election, and although Clinton came out on top, he did so in both of his 'victories' with less than half of the
vote, becoming the only President in US history re-elected in that way. So, in actuality, the drop in seats
by Republicans follows logically on the fact that the Democrats got less than a majority in the previous
Presidential year. That they also captured the top prize is simply a fluke due to the Perot candidacy. On that
analysis, this year continues to fit the pattern.
But turn-out nation-wide was at its lowest level since World War II, and, perhaps lulled by their
expectations of gains in Congress, a lot of Republicans did not vote. Democrat forces did mobilize
their minions, particularly in key districts, with more than
six million labor union member votes
being cast this year than in 1994.
The GOP may not have done as well as they might have done, in large measure due to the high level of
voter turn-out among black Americans. Apparently, the scare tactics of the Democrat attack ads must have
worked for them. This factor is so strong that it actually negates the supposed 'gender gap' among voters.
If you factor out the nearly 90 % Democrat vote in black voting, the gender gap that remains is one that is
a solidly Republican male vote in the neighborhood of some 60 % and an almost even split between
Democrats and Republicans among women voters. Nationally, voter turn-out dropped to an average of
36 % in 1998, but in heavily black districts and in the South, the turn-out was up, at
least in comparison with the national average, if not the 1996 vote. That factor alone probably
accounts for seven of the ten seats the Democrats captured
which had been held by Republicans
prior to November 3 (Ky 4, Miss 4, NJ 12, Pa 13, Ca 1,
Wash 1 and 3). It also was
a major factor in two of the Senate seats taken by Democrats (NY and NC). Without it, the new Congress
would have had a net gain of three Republican seats in both houses, at least. It would likely
have been bigger since they could have captured additional seats in the House which they lost
on this account, and which had been Democrat before the election. It is likely that only the 3rd
district in New Mexico, the 1st in Nevada (the returns here were so close as to suggest that it might not have
been lost either), and the 3rd in Kansas, as well as the Indiana Senate seat would have fallen to Democrats.
Democrats need to worry about their negative gap among white voters and male voters.
As Richard Benedetto reported in this column Politics in USA Today on Monday, November 16, 1998 (p 6a):
"Myth # 2: The women's vote was overwhelmingly Democrat.
Fact: It depends on which women you are talking about and
which contests you are looking at.
. . . In House races women overall voted Democrat,
51% -46%. But white women, the majority of women
who voted, went Republican, 53%-44%.
Women who work voted Democrat, 55% -42%. Women
who do not work outsude the home -- senior citizens,
students, and stay-at-home mothers -- voted Republican
Married women voted Republican, 54%-46%. Single women
-- widows, divorcees and those never married -- voted Democrat
64%-36%. Black wo,men voted 92% Democrat."
He further notes a slight drop in upper income level voters (over $75000 income) to only 53%
(from over 60% in recent elections) for the GOP, while households of less than $15000 income
actually increased their Republican vote from 38% in 1994 to 41% this time. And voters over
60 voted Republican 55%-45% A reversal in voters 45-50 occured from 53% Republican in 1994
to 48% in 1998. In some states, the black voter turnout (which was 90% Democrat) was up
significantly over 1994, for example, from 12 % in Maryland to 19 % this year.
Once again, however, Republicans need to be concerned about their lack of success in padding their hold
on the House and Senate. Half of the last six such races in the aggregate have been washes (92, 96, and 98),
while in 88, 90 and 94 they reaped considerable success (88 +
90 = 92+ 94+ 96 = 98=)
Still, that is not such a bad showing. Particularly when viewed in conjunction with other Republican success
(they continue to show gains in the South and West -- for instance, Florida is now situated with a
Republican controlled legislature and governor for the first time since Reconstruction, and it is not by itself
in rising GOP fortunes in these areas), they are continuing their slow and steady climb in electoral strength.
Republicans might have done better in 1998, even in the face of the race-baiting tactics of the Democrats
if they had been more on target in their strategies. Their most marked triumph still rests with the 1994
Contract with America approach. A highly visible initiative aimed at breaking through the Democrat
racialism perhaps centered on a high level candidacy of someone such as J.C. Watts or Colin Powell
maybe as Vice Presidential candidate could erode the barrier. Powell seems less than enthusiastic about
taking on such a task, and probably for good reason. Many Republicans would be uncomfortable with
some of his liberal social positions, and any such high profile person is going to find themselves to be
a marked man for liberal broadsides. Congressman Watts would be a splendid choice, given his propensity
to stake out his philosophical posture of a 'conservative' message which has considerable attractiveness
to many black Americans, as well as the rest of the electorate. Furthermore, there is no Democrat who could
fill such a role for the liberal position -- Jesse Jackson is well to the left of even Clinton or Gore, and offers
very little of substance that is new for Democrats or black voters. And the leading contender for the
Republican nomination, Governor George Bush of Texas, has shown a remarkable ability to win votes from
another Democratically 'locked-up' constituency, Hispanic voters.
Democrats may be in a curious position in all of this which lends them something of an advantage which
Republicans cannot have. It is a posture not unlike that, perhaps ironically, of the South in the Civil War.
They are faced with having to hold onto their position, while Republicans must 'take' it.