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US Political Parties Look for Lessons From Elections


Both major US political parties are trying to draw lessons from the recent elections, in which Democrats won majorities in both houses of Congress after 12 years of Republican control.

While Democrats have much to cheer from the November elections, Republicans are engaged in sober reflection about what went wrong. Karlyn Bowman is a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. She says the Democrats made serious inroads among voters who had supported Republicans in recent years.

"Regionally, the Democrats won a majority in the Midwest for the first time in a decade. Of the four regions, the Republicans held only the South. A majority in the all-important suburbs, representing about 47 percent of the electorate, voted for Democrats, the first time this has happened since 1992. Rural voters, an important Republican group, looked Republican once again, but just barely," says Bowman.

The Hispanic Vote

Republicans remain strong in the South, an area of the country where Democrats have had limited success in recent years. But Democrats are encouraged by the gains they made in the Rocky Mountain West, an area of the country that is growing rapidly thanks in part to a large influx of Hispanic immigrants.

Thomas Schaller is a professor political science at the University of Maryland. He spoke on the CSPAN public affairs television network.

"So these states are growing rapidly. That, coupled with the fact that most of the Latino growth in the country is taking place in the region, which is still underdeveloped because many of them are either under 18 or do not have citizenship yet, really gives Democrats the opportunity to pry open the West and take it away from the Republicans," says Schaller.

Both parties do agree on one thing. The congressional election results mean a shift in the balance of power in Washington away from Republican control of both the presidency and the legislative branch of government.

Larry Sabato, from the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says "It is one of the most significant midterm elections in the post World War Two era, just as 1994 in its day was in that category. This, of course, is the reverse of 1994. This was about as significant a change as you can reasonably have given these district lines that protect incumbents. Those years do not happen very often, and when they do the public is sending a strong message," says Sabato.

The War in Iraq

Experts say much of that message had to do with the public's unhappiness over the war in Iraq. It was an attitude politicians from both parties clearly felt during the election campaign.

Republican Michael Steele, who lost his race for a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland, says "The electorate was very clear. I mean, I said for over a year that there was a sour mood out there and they really expected both the administration and the [Republican] party to step up and speak to particular issues. And failing that, there would be heck [i.e., a political price] to pay, and we paid."

But Democratic control of Congress does not mean Democrats will have their way in Washington. Democrats have a narrow margin of control in the Senate and the threat of a legislative veto by President Bush will still carry some weight. Lawmakers from both parties say they will look to compromise early on issues like raising the minimum working wage and perhaps immigration reform.

But analyst Larry Sabato says that the Democrats' narrow margins of congressional control means the president and his Republican supporters in Congress will still play a major role in shaping legislation. "Divided government by its nature suggests the outcome, gridlock. That is not to say that nothing will pass, that is not to say that there are not a few subjects on which there can be bipartisan cooperation. But by and large, gridlock produces deadlock," says Sabato.

The Role of Moderates

Some experts believe that political moderates in both parties, especially the newly elected moderate to conservative Democrats in the House and Senate, will have a key role to play in the legislative battles to come.

Norman Ornstein, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says "We still have a [Democratic] party that is largely alike and left [i.e., liberal], but the balance of power, if you look just within the party, any group of 15 or 20 in the House or two or three in the Senate can hold it. But you have got a significant number of centrists and that is something that both [Senate Democratic leader] Harry Reid and [House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi are going to have to take into account all the time as they look ahead," says Orenstein.

For their part, Republicans are already reflecting on how they might win back moderate and independent voters in the next election. In November, self-described moderates and independents voted for Democratic candidates over Republicans by about a two-to-one margin.

That is a change from the previous two elections in 2004 and 2002 when moderates and independents preferred Republicans, in part because of what they saw as President Bush's strong stand on national security.

Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News and a frequent guest on VOA's Issues in the News program, says "The terror issue, the security issue related to personal security and keeping us safe at home really resonated with the American voters, especially in 2002 and to a lesser but still significant extent in 2004. And there were political aides at the White House saying it has worked twice, it moved votes, it will happen again, just you wait and see. And this time it did not happen," says Frank.

In the wake of their election victory, public pressure is already building on Democrats to follow through on their campaign promises once they take control of Congress in January.

A poll taken by the USA Today newspaper and the Gallup polling organization after the election found that 61 percent of those surveyed want congressional Democrats to have more influence on the direction of the nation than President Bush.

But the survey also found that a majority of those polled believe the Democrats will raise taxes over the next two years and that about half of those asked are skeptical about Democratic pledges to clean up congressional ethics and reduce the national budget deficit.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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