Analyst points to growing political divides in stateDespite the Republicans' victories in last week's Congressional elections, the United States remains a deeply divided nation politically, political analyst Bill Lunch told a Columbia Forum audience Thursday.
Lunch, Oregon State University political science professor and commentator for Oregon Public Broadcasting, put the 2002 election in historical perspective and explained how the results confounded his predictions.
"People who use crystal balls usually end up with a lot of broken glass, and I've eaten my share," he said.
By winning seats in last week's election, and regaining control of the Senate and increasing its hold on the House of Representatives in the process, the GOP bucked a pattern dating back to World War II that's found the party holding the White House does poorly in congressional elections in times of war and recession, Lunch said.
The Republicans' win wasn't the sweeping victory some called it, he said, certainly not on the scale of the landslide that brought the GOP control of the House of Representatives in 1994. The party won seven of 11 House races that were considered toss-ups, and one Senate race thought likely to remain in the Democrats' hands.
"A switch of 42,500 votes would have resulted in a Democratic House instead of Republican," he said. "The point is that the country is still very divided."
But the Republicans managed something that's happened only three times since the Civil War - gaining seats in Congress two years after capturing the presidency, Lunch said.
Normally economic concerns influence voters the most in off-year elections, Lunch said, and that's what he expected to be the biggest issue this year. But polling data shows that of the people who made up their minds in the last few days before the election, most voted Republican, and most of them appeared to be swayed by the Bush Administration's arguments over possible war in Iraq and other foreign policy issues.
"The president was able to nationalize the election on the questions that favored (Republicans)," he said. "Whether he can do that two elections in a row, I'm skeptical - but I was skeptical Bush could pull it off this year."
Some observers think the Republicans could be assembling the kind of solid political base the Democrats put together under Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. Lunch said he's not yet convinced of that, but acknowledged that the GOP is showing particular strength.
"2002 is arguably a very historic election," he said.
The nation's political divide is mirrored in Oregon, where the election left the state with a Democratic governor, a Republican House of Representatives, and an evenly divided Senate.
"Is there a better recipe for absolute gridlock?" he said. "I do not have particularly high hopes for the 2003 Legislature to get much done."
Oregon's election also illustrated the growing urban-rural divide, as Democrat Ted Kulongoski barely edged Republican Kevin Mannix thanks to his strength in the cities. Kulongoski won in just eight of Oregon's 36 counties, but they included populous Multnomah and Lane counties.
He also won in Clatsop, Tillamook and Lincoln counties, which have bucked the trend toward GOP control in rural areas and remained solidly Democratic, thanks in part to a legacy of labor struggles in the early 1900s, Lunch said.
With the urban and rural areas becoming more polarized, suburban counties like Washington County are becoming "the pivot on which Oregon politics turns," he said. Mannix won in Washington County, but just barely.
Lunch rejects the claim that Libertarian candidate Tom Cox cost Mannix the election by drawing Republican votes. Pollsters found that Cox, who received about 5 percent of the vote, drew equally from Republicans and Democrats, he said.