Thursday, June 03, 2004

A Democratic Contract with America? 

Roll Call has reported that Congressional Democrats are exploring putting together their own version of the GOP's 1994 "Contract with America." As I mused here, this may not be a bad idea.

Then again, Nick Confessore seems to think it's a waste of time. He may well be right. But the evidence he cites isn't terribly convincing:
Put simply, the Contract with America was not remotely important in helping the GOP win back Congress in 1994. As Christopher Caldwell reveals in this fascinating -- and, I think, still prescient in many ways -- Atlantic article from 1998, the Contract was a:
[L]ist of ten propositions -- tax cuts, social-service cuts, and such government reforms as term limits -- announced as a manifesto six weeks before the 104th Congress was voted into office. There were two problems with the contract. First, two thirds of Americans didn't know it existed. Second, Republican polling, done by Frank Luntz, had been fraudulently presented to the public as showing that the contract commanded 60 percent support in all its particulars. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, in fact, found that people disagreed, by 45 to 35 percent, "with most of what the GOP House is proposing to do."
In practice, the Contract served more as an organizing agenda for the new House majority.
Yes, the Contract did primarily serve as an agenda for the new House majority. And yes, 2/3 of the American public didn't know it existed. That's evidence that the Contract did not represent a mandate. That's what the Atlantic article is suggesting, and that was the basis of Democratic political rhetoric at the time.

But this says NOTHING about whether or not the Contract was an effective campaign tool. The relevant question is whether the Contract motivated core GOP voters to come out and vote in November 1994, not what proportion of the greater electorate was aware of the ploy. Unfortunately, I am unaware of careful survey analysis exploring whether the Contract had a measurable effect on voter turnout; I'll see if I can dig up any relevant scholarship if I have some free time.

UPDATE: Well, I didn't really have any free time, but I took a quick look around anyway and found an article from 1995 in the journal Political Research Quarterly that has something to say on the matter. The author, Alan Abramowitz, analyzes data from the 1994 National Election Survey (and, actually, previous NES's as well) and comes to the conclusion that the Contract (or ideological, issues-based campaigns, anyway) had a major impact on the outcome of contests between incumbent Democrats and GOP challengers in 1994. While it's not a slam dunk, it's worth a look if you're interested in the question (and have access to JSTOR).

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