With the U.S. Congress divided just about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, many political analysts consider next Tuesday's election to be among the most important in a long time. But, so-called "mid-term elections," those halfway through a president's term in office, tend to attract fewer voters than a presidential vote. VOA's Michael Leland recently spoke with some voters in the Chicago suburbs and found them unhappy with the candidates.
In mid-term elections, the biggest opponent most candidates will face is likely to be apathy. About half of America's voting-age population cast ballots in the presidential election two years ago. But, in the last mid-term election in 1998 only about 35-percent went to the polls.
The head of the nation's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, was recently quoted in a Chicago newspaper as saying people vote when they are mad, not necessarily when they are anxious. This year, Americans seem to have much to be anxious about: a possible war with Iraq, the threat of terrorism and the economy.
County Seat Diner owner Osman Bobeski in Wheaton, Illinois, worries about the economy, but says politicians do not talk enough about it. "There are a lot of foreclosures," he says. "People are losing houses because they lost a job and because of the [financial] markets. I do not see any politicians talking about the market and all those people who have lost money. They are talking about Iraq. It doesn't make sense. It is not just my opinion; it is the opinion of my customers. I talk to 100 people a day."
But not everyone blames lawmakers in Washington or President Bush for the country's economic slump. Diner customer Ken Schultz thinks the president has done a pretty good job in office. "I do not think he really can control the economy that much," he says. "I think he can instill confidence in the American people, but day in and day out, what control does he have over the economy?"
Voters traditionally blame the party in power for economic troubles, and vote for change. Curtis Gans directs the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "Historically, when we have had weak economies, even during this period of decline, in years like 1992 and 1982 when we had the perception of recession, turnout went up out of fear and worries over things like retirement plans and employment," he says.
But Mr. Gans says right now he does not think the economy is driving people to make any widespread changes with their votes. He says voter registration is down slightly from what it was four years ago, suggesting people aren't angry enough about the economy to vote for new leadership.
The possibility of military action to disarm Iraq might make some Americans anxious, but has not been much of a campaign issue. It is something on Ken Schultz's mind, though. He thinks President Bush has been too quick to emphasize force over diplomacy. "We had support from the whole world a year ago and now we do not, why? I think it is because of the way he [President Bush] has kind of gone at it, sort of shoot first and ask questions later," he says. "At the same time I think it is a problem that the world is ignoring."
President Bush has enjoyed a high approval rating since the attacks, and he has been campaigning throughout the country in recent weeks, trying to turn his goodwill with the American public into votes for Republican candidates.
And what about the new emphasis on patriotism in the United States? Does that encourage people to vote? Curtis Gans says no. "What we were asked to do after the crisis of September 11 is return to normalcy: buy stocks, buy consumer goods and perhaps give to charity. That is not an activist message," he says.
The stakes for both parties are high in this election. Democrats can control the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years by picking up seven seats. The Senate is split evenly: 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats, one Independent and one vacant seat created by the recent death of Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone.
Back at the County Seat Diner, Ken Schultz says more people might vote if there were better candidates running for office. "These candidates we keep getting to choose from, I can not believe these are the best people that the United States of America can continue to put forward and say, "choose." It is "none of the above" every time," he says.
The Committee for the Study of the Electorate predicts voter turnout on Tuesday could be even lower than the dismal 35-percent turnout in 1998. It seems most Americans are unmoved by the old saying that you can't complain about your leaders if you don't vote.