Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Mideast War and the Midterm Elections

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics July 26th, 2006

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The Israeli-Hezbollah war in the Middle East has become this summer’s obsession, and rightly so. The dangers of a wider war are ever present, and no story is equal to the misery of armed conflict in the world’s tinderbox.

Nonetheless, one wishes that the television media could walk and chew gum simultaneously. Loads of important stories, like trees falling in the forest, are making no sound because they are not recorded. The bloodshed in Iraq is worse than ever; if this isn’t a civil war now raging there, it’s a good imitation. On the home front, President Bush’s first veto of a critical stem-cell research bill and his first White House appearance at an NAACP convention were barely one-day stories–major political events that got short shrift and deserved better.

It’s the same with the 2006 midterm elections, which have essentially fallen off the radar screen for the time being (and this might be a lengthy war). However, the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict is having, and will continue to have, an impact on the midterms in several ways.

First, the absence of the usual level of media coverage makes it more difficult for many challengers to get the attention needed to defeat incumbents. The public is also distracted, so even when well-funded challengers try to buy their coverage with paid TV ads, voters look elsewhere. Meanwhile, incumbents scarf up free media (TV news time) by virtue of their offices, commenting on the Mideast troubles.

Disproportionately, this effect of war helps Republicans, since they are in the majority in both houses of Congress, and most endangered incumbents this year are from the GOP.

The Republicans benefit in another way. Democrats still are not the GOP’s equal on the national security issue–though the gap is not as great as it was in the years immediately after 9/11. In times of international tension and trouble, there is a natural focus on the White House, and President Bush has the security credentials to take advantage of this issue on behalf of his party. Whether Bush fully does so, of course, remains to be seen. Only now is U.S. diplomacy and influence beginning to be exerted in the region.

The final advantage for Republicans in the current conflict is the all-encompassing nature of the coverage. The near black-out of news on Iraq can only help the White House. Were it not for the bombs falling on Beirut and the rockets raining down on Haifa, the nearly unprecedented carnage throughout the blood-soaked nation of Iraq would surely be leading the news. Bush owns Iraq, and GOP candidates would surely suffer from the chaos, just as they have been doing for a year or more.

Also, is there any doubt that the GOP would have taken some major hits on the stem-cell veto had it received more sustained scrutiny? The American people substantially favor embryonic stem cell research, even many normally pro-life voters; Nancy Reagan, Bill Frist and Orrin Hatch all represent this sizeable segment of the electorate. Bush’s veto may play to some conservative Christians, but it has the potential to alienate the independents and moderates necessary for a broad-based GOP victory in the fall.

Having said all this, Democrats may not be disadvantaged by the Mideast war come November. After all, even the Israelis suggest that they may be ready for a ceasefire and an international peacekeeping force after a few more weeks of fighting, once they have “cleaned out” Hezbollah missiles and fighters in southern Lebanon. The focus of the public and the media shifts rapidly, and only a terrible game of war dominoes could keep this conflict at the top of the news through the American elections.

Democrats can also score points along the way. The slow rescue of Americans from Lebanon reminded many Democrats (and others) of the inadequate government response to Hurricane Katrina. Any failures in American diplomacy can be attributed in part to the nation’s costly commitment in Iraq. Furthermore, the alienation of many allies in Europe and some Arab states as well has restricted U.S. flexibility to mediate the conflict.

The final electoral truth is that the Mideast war would somehow have to help President Bush and the Republican Congress to climb out of the polling cellar in the time remaining before Americans stream to the polls. While there may appear opportunities ripe for exploitation by the GOP, so far nothing of the sort has happened as the fighting rages on.

This unexpected and nasty little war is an unwelcome reminder of just how quickly the political sands can shift, and it is further warning–if any were needed–that predictions about an election months away are often as unreliable and unsteady as those sands.