Voters Signal a Hunger for Change


By: Wall Street Journal

By GERALD F. SEIB

Change is the most powerful word in politics, and it’s beginning to appear American voters want to send change roaring through the system like a gale-force wind in 2008.

We’re talking about the kind of change that doesn’t merely adjust the dials but twists them in a decidedly different direction. The signs that such sentiment is afoot in the land are starting to multiply.

They can be seen in the rise of Mike Huckabee among Republicans and Barack Obama among Democrats in the presidential campaign. The two candidates are gaining ground precisely because they represent a significant departure from the status quo.

The change imperative is implicit in all kinds of polling numbers. In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, two-thirds of those surveyed now regularly say that things are “off on the wrong track,” the highest sustained level of dissatisfaction in 15 years.

The sentiment was evident last week in the results of a little-noticed special election to fill a House seat in Ohio vacated by the death of Republican Rep. Paul Gillmor. Republicans should have kept the seat easily. The Fifth District has been reliably Republican for decades, and the Republican candidate won more than 60% of the vote in nine of the previous 10 House elections. But this year, Republicans had to spend heavily to keep the seat, and new Rep. Bob Latta got just 57% of the vote. Republicans held back the winds of change.

The change impulse can even be seen in the success this year of Rep. Ron Paul in the Republican presidential race. His libertarian message of scaling back government on all fronts once would have been considered too radical. Yet he already has raised an impressive $18 million this quarter alone, which will make him a force to be reckoned with in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary and beyond.

Elections that truly change the country’s direction aren’t very common. In fact, they come along perhaps once in a generation. And, of course, a shocking event such as a terrorist attack next year could change the equation, compelling voters to value stability over change.

For now, though, change with a capital “C” would figure to hurt Republicans most, because they’ve been in charge most of this decade. But Democratic incumbents shouldn’t be too sanguine.

The groundwork for a big-change election this year may have been set in the results of the 2006 election, when Democrats swept into power in both the House and the Senate.

But often such a congressional election is followed by a general election in which voters get cold feet about lasting change. In 1958, for instance, Democrats picked up a whopping 49 seats in the House and 15 in the Senate in the middle of Dwight Eisenhower’s second term. But the Democratic surge didn’t continue; two years later, Democrats lost 20 seats in the House and John F. Kennedy barely won the presidency.

Similarly, Republicans picked up 54 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate in the Gingrich revolution of 1994. But two years later, Republicans relinquished three of those House seats, and Democrat Bill Clinton easily won re-election.

Sometimes, though, the tremors in an off-year election are followed by a true earthquake in a general election. In 1978, Republicans took over 15 House seats and three Senate seats. That simply set up the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1980, in which Republicans took over the White House and gained 34 House seats and an unusually high 12 Senate seats, the biggest Senate swing in two decades.

Politicians themselves often don’t see the signs of an earthquake. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, says that in 1980 many Democrats wanted to run against Mr. Reagan, thinking him too conservative for the country.

The question, of course, is whether 2008 will be another 1980. One intriguing hint of change comes in the behavior of Republican voters. In recent years, Republicans have tended to act like the well-behaved kids in school, who walk in straight lines and keep quiet. They have reliably fallen in behind the establishment candidate.

This year, with no incumbent president or vice president running, there isn’t an obvious establishment favorite, and Republicans are all over the map — hence, the rise of Mr. Huckabee, and the surprising resilience of another unconventional Republican candidate, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, atop national Republican polls.

Now, the task for other campaigns is to show they understand the forces of change. Republican Sen. John McCain has done better since he’s stopped acting like the establishment candidate and starting acting more like a maverick. The campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who once led comfortably in Iowa and New Hampshire, is seeking to persuade voters that Mr. Huckabee’s occasional collisions with ethics and reform forces while governor of Arkansas show he isn’t the agent of change he purports to be.

The further Romney message is that competence is key to changing the system and that their man has proved he has it. Mr. Romney has led “very large organizations toward success,” says spokesman Kevin Madden. “He didn’t do that by sitting in committee hearing rooms on Capitol Hill.”

And on the Democratic side, the goal of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is to show that she is a change agent as much as Sen. Obama is. Its message: There would be no bigger change than electing a woman president. And some experience working within the system, which she has, makes it easier to change that system.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com
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