The Seinfeld Election

By Naomi Katz '00 / January / February 1999
November 21st, 2007
Fans of National Public Radio news programs, and of White House correspondent Mara Liasson '77 in particular, are accustomed to articulate, thoughtful commentary on the obfuscating, bumbling world of Washington politics. But when Darrell West, chair of the political science department, brought Liasson to campus during the week after election day last fall, the normally trenchant reporter and occasional College Hill visitor was, well, flummoxed. "I've never been asked to come [to Brown] after a week like this," she exclaimed.

Delivering a John Hazen White lecture at the Salomon Center auditorium on November 9, Liasson struggled for insight into the previous week. The resignation of Speaker of the U.S. House Newt Gingrich, she said, meant that he had become the first victim of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. She then observed that the White House was heartbroken about the resignation of President Clinton's greatest foil.

If Liasson seemed stunned by the fate of Gingrich and Clinton, she was on surer ground while analyzing the election results. She wryly dissected the absurdities and hypocrisies of what she called the Seinfeld election - an election about nothing. No single issue was cited by more than 20 percent of voters as their primary concern, she said.

Before the election, Liasson continued, Democrats had insisted that its results not be considered a referendum on impeachment, but given the outcome at the polls the party was happy afterwards to interpret them as exactly such a referendum.

What, then, were the lessons of November's balloting? First, Liasson said, "maybe money doesn't matter as much as we thought." Republicans lost in the House despite outspending Democrats two to one. Even here, though, the meaning is not entirely clear: in 95 percent of House districts, the candidate spending more money won.

Secondly, Liasson continued, contrary to conventional political wisdom, this election demonstrated that conservatives do not necessarily vote in higher numbers in midterm elections. This year's voter turnout was 36 percent, the lowest since 1942. Low turnout in recent years has favored Republicans, but Democrats managed to rally their traditional groups, especially labor activists, African Americans, and feminists, to take five additional House seats.

Politics, in other words, has not lost its ability to surprise, as was shown in Minnesota, where former professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura was elected governor. Liasson called it her favorite election.

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January / February 1999