WASHINGTON (Sept. 2, 1997)

Demographics, not dollars, determine who wins the races for Congress.

By David L. Haase / The Indianapolis Star/News

Swimming against a tide of campaign finance critics, the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy claims it can pick with certainty the party winners in three-fourths of the 1998 House races -- right now! The center bases its predictions on who lives and votes in those districts, regardless of how much campaign money the candidates raise and spend.

Big promise, but the center puts its case in a report, aptly entitled "Monopoly Politics'', at http://www.fairvote.org.

The way the center figures it, demographics is destiny.

That's even a chapter title in Monopoly Politics.

What does that mean?

In essense, it means Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans for Republicans, and whichever party outnumbers the other in a congressional district wins.

To illustrate its point, the center looked at every congressional race in 1996, then split them into six categories based on President Clinton's share of the vote.

As you look at the results, sliding from the districts where Clinton did the worst to those where he did the best, Republicans won the most seats where he did poorly. As Clinton did better, the Republicans did worse.

The same was true for Democrats, except in reverse. As Clinton did better, so did the Democrats.

For instance, in districts that gave Clinton less than 41 percent of the vote -- nine points less than his 49 percent national average -- Republicans won 78 seats and Democrats won four.

In districts where Clinton ran five to eight points behind his national average, the GOP won 57 House seats and Democrats won 12. And so it went.

In those districts where Clinton won more than 57 percent of the vote -- eight points more than his national average -- Republicans won one seat and Democrats won 97.

Bottom line, according to the center: "Most U.S. House elections are not competitive for one simple reason: A clear majority of voters in a given district prefer one party's political philosophy over that of the other party. They vote a certain way in the presidential race, and most of them vote the same way in the House race regardless of how much money is spent."

But, hey, what about ticket splitters? You know, the folks who vote for the presidential candidate of one party and then split to vote for the congressional candidate of another party?

The center looked at elections going back to 1976 and found that less than one-fourth of all voters split their tickets in any presidential election. When votes for independent candidates were taken out, the ticket-splitting vote got even smaller.

And an interesting thing happened over time. Ticket splitting diminished between 1976 and 1996, except in 1988 when then Vice President George Bush took on Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Are the folks at the Center really serious that money does not spell victory?

They are, and they display a certain pique about it.

"All of the talk of how campaign finance reform can provide a 'level playing field' overlooks one glaring fact,'' center director Robert Richie writes. "The voters are not equally balanced in most districts.

"Our findings suggest that campaign reform is all the more important. Which is worse? Asking for money to help win a competitive election or asking for money for an election you have no chance to lose?''

Where are those "no-choice'' districts, and where's the action?

Here the center does a wonderful job of using the World Wide Web and its hypertext linking capability to present lots of numbers in a clear way.

First, the center predicts the results for each state on a simple eight-column table.

It would be very easy to allow the chart to slop over the width of the average computer screen. Not so here. Everything fits the screen width and prints out on average width paper.

If you want more detail on a state, you click on the state name and get the lowdown district by district.

Be forewarned, the center has put together a lot of numbers. Sometimes the numbers almost overwhelm you. When that happens, just fall back on the spare, but clear explanations.

Besides, the 1998 election is 14 months away. You've got at least that long to figure it all out and place your bets.

By the way, the center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Washington.

It is in business to promote "proportional representation.'' That means is that if half of the country is registered Republican -- it's not; this is just an illustration -- then Republicans should win half of the congressional seats.

Simple idea, but like all simple ideas in politics, it gets beat up along the way.

David L. Haase is a Washington correspondent for The Indianapolis Star & News.