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Washington Journal: No Real Change In Status Quo Likely After US Ballot

Washington, 30 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- One of Washington's leading political analysts says next Tuesday's general elections in the United States are likely to show that most of the country could care less about what the capitol city's political elite thinks is important.

Says Thomas Mann, director of the Governmental Studies Program at the non-profit Brookings Institution in Washington:

"This year will probably go down in history as the year in which Washington had the worst take on public attitudes, public opinion and potentially political behavior in this country. There has been a gap between Washington and public opinion since late January in this country. Now it may be the gap has finally closed with Washington catching up with the country and it may well be that the new take on these elections reflects the realization in our town that what we had thought to be issues of enormous importance, developments of tremendous significance have indeed proven less so."

Tuesday's elections are called mid-term elections because they come at the mid point of a four-year presidential term. Voters in the 50 U.S. states will be electing all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 34 of 100 U.S. Senators, 36 state governors and 46 state legislatures. Despite all these important posts to fill, however, a number of experts believe there is a serious lack of interest in the outcomes on the part of American voters.

There are about 196 million eligible voters in the United States. Mid-term elections typically attract fewer voters than presidential elections. For example, 49 percent of the eligible electorate voted in the 1996 presidential election, but only about 39 percent voted in the 1994 mid-term. This year, Mann and other experts say turnout could fall to 33 percent, which would be a record.

There are two dominant political parties in the U.S. -- the Republicans and the Democrats. Currently, the Republicans enjoy a 228-206 majority in the House, with one independent member; a 55-45 majority in the Senate, and a 32-17 majority of governorships, again with one governor being independent. Control of state legislatures is about evenly divided.

At a recent pre-election press briefing, Mann said a low voter turnout would benefit the Republican Party.

According to Mann, "the preponderance of evidence suggests," two things. The first, he says, is that, "this is a low turnout election," and that a low turnout, "is likely, in most districts and states, to work to the advantage of the Republican Party." Mann says that is why Democrats are "working so hard" to mobilize voters.

He says that if the turnout falls below 33 percent, the Democrats will be "in serious trouble."

Mann, a former director of the American Political Science Association, has studied U.S. elections for more than 30 years. He says that this year, there are few common themes to galvanize either political party. Mann, and others, say that even the threat of impeachment that hangs over President Bill Clinton -- a Democrat -- has not had much effect on the election campaign.

Says Mann:

"Well, we had the impeachment vote, and then we had the public reaction to it. There was certainly initially a feeling of a potential Republican surge. There was then a sense of a Democratic backlash. And now it seems to have settled down and not be much of a factor at all, although this is an area where we probably ought to be attentive to. "

Democratic Party leaders such as Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House, say the party's objective this year is simply to hang on and not surrender more seats in Congress to the Republicans.

Republican Party leaders are predicting gains of between 8-20 House seats. If the Republicans can reach 250 House seats, experts predict that the impeachment proceedings against Clinton will be a certainty.

The House, which has the sole power to impeach a president, voted before the end of its last term to start an inquiry to determine if impeachment proceedings should be undertaken. The president has been accused of, among other things, of committing perjury by lying about his relationship with a former White House office worker named Monica Lewinsky.

Democrats, while they have condemned Clinton's personal behavior, do not believe his sexual escapades warrant starting a process that could eventually lead to his removal from office by the U.S. Senate. Mann, however, contends that if the Republicans make big gains in the House, "it will be impossible" to stop impeachment.

But he also says that if the Democrats maintain about the same number of House seats, the impeachment investigation and hearings will be brief and will not result in Clinton's demise.

In the Senate, Republican leaders have smaller expectations, perhaps a gain of three seats. The Republicans would like to win five more seats, however, because that would give them control over parliamentary procedure and, in theory, enable the Republicans to block debate on Democratic proposals.

In the states, the Republicans are expected to keep their 32 governorships and possibly add three more.

(Another in RFE/RL's series previewing the 1998 general election in the US)