A Popularity Contest

The Republican sweep was breathtaking. For the first time since 1934, the president's party gained strength in both the House and Senate in a midterm election. Democrats expected to win a majority of the nation's governors. They failed. And for the first time in 50 years, Republicans will hold more seats in the nation's state legislatures than Democrats will. About the only thing Democrats control right now is the TV series The West Wing.

How did it happen? A Republican polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies, surveyed 1,000 voters on Election Night and came up with a four-letter answer: Bush. The key factor, according to pollster Bill McInturff, was President Bush's job-approval rating of 66 percent. Moreover, his approval rating was 93 percent among Republicans, a sign of remarkable enthusiasm among the party's base.

People who made up their minds in the final days of the campaign were crucial in this midterm. One-quarter of voters made up their minds at the last minute. Among late-deciders, Bush got a 69 percent job-approval rating. And they voted Republican.

What about the issues? Didn't they favor the GOP? The short answer is no.

The top issue for voters, according to this Republican poll, was the economy. Voters who were concerned about the economy and jobs went Democratic by an 8-point margin. Voters' second-ranked concern was education, another Democratic issue, followed by Social Security and Medicare, topics that also work to the Democrats' advantage. The only domestic issue on which the GOP had the advantage was taxes, but it was not among voters' top concerns.

Didn't national security issues dominate voters' minds? No. The poll shows only 26 percent of voters citing the situation with Iraq as an important issue—half as many as cited the economy. And just 17 percent of respondents cited the war on terrorism.

The election's outcome was determined by Bush's popularity, not by issues. The outcome was also the result of a finely engineered voter-mobilization effort run out of the White House. From the day Bush took office, White House senior adviser Karl Rove has been plotting a political strategy for 2002. Rove tipped his hand last January when he told the Republican National Committee that the war on terrorism could be a useful issue for GOP candidates this year.

Outraged Democrats accused Rove of politicizing the war. "General Rove," they called him. Rove was indeed planning a war: the political offensive of 2002. His tactics? First, recruit strong GOP candidates, such as Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Jim Talent in Missouri, and Saxby Chambliss in Georgia. Second, support them with aggressive fundraising and an army of consultants and pollsters.

But the GOP needed something else: a national cause that the party could rally around. That turned out to be George W. Bush.

On Rove's advice, the president ran a relentless political marathon, campaigning in 15 carefully chosen states in the final five days. The president's travels were supplemented by the "72-Hour Plan," an extensive GOP vote-pulling operation during the last three days of the campaign. Bush's last-minute stops in Minnesota and Georgia almost certainly turned the elections around in those crucial states.

Analysis of the voting returns suggests that the key factor in the GOP sweep was a heavy turnout of the Republican base, not Democratic abstentions. Democrats got a respectable turnout from minority voters in such states as Florida, Georgia, and Texas, and minorities voted predictably Democratic. But minority turnout was swamped by white voters who turned out in unexpectedly high numbers and who tilted more Republican than usual.

"The story of 2002 is not that Democrats stayed home," Georgia Republican Party Chairman Ralph Reed told The New York Times. "It was that Republicans came to the polls in historic numbers, and our candidates had the broadest appeal to swing voters we have seen in recent years."

We've seen this happen before: just eight years ago, in fact. In the 1994 midterm, "angry white men" stormed to the polls and gave Republicans a breakthrough. In 1994, the pivotal voters were voting against President Clinton. This time, they were voting for President Bush. And they were driven by enthusiasm, not anger. The election was a pep rally, not a protest rally.

Second chances are rare in American politics. Having taken over Congress for the second time in a decade, Republicans now have another chance. They blew it the first time, mostly because they assumed a mandate to govern that they didn't have. Newt Gingrich had not been elected president.

This time, Republicans stand a much better chance of getting it right. Not only do they control the presidency, but this election was guided and won by the White House. It was Bush's victory. He won the mandate, and he will set the agenda. "I appreciate all the advice I'm getting," Bush said with a laugh at his press conference two days after the election. "One of the things about this job, if you listen carefully, you get a lot of advice." But, he added, "it's important for a president to set priorities."