The Couch Potato's Guide to Election Night
The Couch Potato's Guide to Election Night
If you have a political bone in your body -- even if you're usually a cynic about elections -- you're undoubtedly holding your breath right now. With the 2006 midterm elections upon us, the question is: Will the Democrats recapture at least the House of Representatives and maybe even take the Senate by the narrowest of margins?
There is very little agreement about what might happen if a change in Congressional control takes place. The Bush administration, of course, has trumpeted the direst of warnings, predicting (in sometimes veiled ways) nothing less than the demise of the country. Less apocalyptic predictions include an expectation among 70% of potential voters (as reported in the latest New York Times poll) that "American troops would be taken out of
So we will go into Tuesday looking for that tell-tale count that will indicate a Democratic gain of 15 or more seats in the House; and -- a much bigger if -- six seats in the Senate. We probably face a long night sorting out so many disparate races -- and our traditional counters, the TV networks, won't even begin their task until the polls close on the East coast. So we could face a long day's journey into night, if we don't have some other "benchmarks" -- to use a newly favored administration word -- and issues to ponder.
Before the Polls Close
Voter turnout is crucial: The networks have grown skilled at predicting elections using exit polls and they begin collecting their numbers first thing in the morning. Even for close races, they often have a very good idea what will happen by early afternoon. They are, however, sworn to secrecy until those polls close, because early forecasts of results have, in the past, affected voter turnout later in the day.
But they are willing to reveal one very important fact during daytime newscasts: voter turnout, which is generally the determining factor in close races. Here's why.
By the time Election Day arrives, just about every voter has made up his or her mind about whom to vote for. Even for that vaunted category, independent voters (who, so many experts are convinced, will determine this election), less than 15% were undecided a week before the election. True enough, those who hadn't by then made up their minds are expected to be splitting two-to-one for the Democrats even as you read this, thereby making some previously secure Republican seats competitive. But by Election Day itself, the handful of independent "undecideds" that remain will not be enough to tip the close races one way or the other, no matter what they do.
The determining factor in winning those "too close to call" seats is: How many already committed voters actually go to the polls. Traditionally, in a midterm election as many as two-thirds of a candidate's supporters may stay home, so whoever moves the most people from the couch to the polling booth will win.
And this year there is real intrigue about which party can get its supporters to the polls. Since the 1990s, the GOP has been hands-down better at this. Leaving aside the question of fraud for the moment, most observers believe this "get out the vote" effort was critical in the elections of 2000, 2002, and 2004. But this year may be different.
GOP superiority has been based on two factors -- a much better on-the-ground organization and far greater enthusiasm among the rank and file. Such enthusiasm means potential voters are more likely to brave cold weather or long lines to vote; and it also means more volunteers to encourage people to get out and, in some cases, to transport them to the polls.
The Democrats have been working since 2004 to build up their on-the-ground organizations in key states like
So check the news early for turnout reports from key areas. Look for whether turnout is higher this year in Democratic urban strongholds, and lower in GOP suburban or rural ones. This will tell you a lot about each party's congressional (and gubernatorial) possibilities.
What about fraud? In 2000 in
Many people are terrified that the new electronic voting machines will be the means to falsify vote totals (as was apparently done in
Two examples will illustrate how this can be done. In the 2000 election, Republicans in
This year, GOP state officials in as many as a dozen states have already made good use of the legal system to exclude otherwise eligible voters. They have, for instance, passed laws that will disqualify people who think they are eligible to vote. One common way to do this is by requiring a state-issued picture ID (a driver's license), which many old and poor people (guaranteed to fall heavily into the Democratic column) do not have. These potential voters will simply be turned away and, by the time anyone can register a meaningful complaint, the election will be a fait accompli. Watch especially for complaints in the following states that have passed such laws (or similar ones to the same end):
But Ohio will probably be the worst, since Republican officials there have developed an ingenious electoral "purging" system. State-appointed officials are allowed (but not required) to eliminate people from the voting rolls for a variety of minute irregularities -- without notifying them. This year, only strongly Democratic districts had their rolls purged, while strongly GOP districts, not surprisingly, went untouched. On Election Day, many voters, possibly hundreds of thousands statewide, are going to show up at the
So start looking for news reports early in the day reflecting the following symptomatic problems: (1) voting sites with tremendous long lines because there aren't enough machines to accommodate all the voters; (2) people in enough numbers to catch reportorial eyes who claim that they have been declared ineligible on appearing at the polls. Expect virtually all affected people to be Democratic.
Contested races: Of the 14 contested Senate seats, the Democrats currently hold six (
Right now the Democrats seem likely to win three of these --
Among the approximately 60 house seats now generally agreed to fall into the category of "contested," all but six are currently held by Republicans. The Democrats need just 33 of these, a little over half, to claim the House. It's obvious why so many people are predicting that the Democrats will win.
Three states to watch:
Ohio (5 contested seats) is at least as interesting, because polls show at least three of the four contested races, all with Republican incumbents, to be really close -- and so especially sensitive to fraud. If all of them go GOP, this might be a strong signal of success for the various Republican voter-suppression schemes in the state -- and for fraud in the rest of the country. If the Dems win at least two, it will probably be a long night for the GOP.
And then, keep an eye on
Three elections to watch, for very different reasons: First, keep a close eye on the Tennessee Senate race. African American Congressman Harold Ford, the Democratic candidate, was essentially written off early in a generally blood red state -- until, that is, he caught up and even pushed ahead in some polls. Now, he is slipping back a bit and probably won't win (in the 10 polls since October 20, he is, on average, lagging by about 3%). But even if he loses, the margin by which he goes down will be an interesting indicator of the national mood. It seems that white southerners have this habit of telling opinion pollsters and exit poll workers that they favor a Black candidate, even though they vote for the white opponent. This peculiar racial trait has resulted in Black candidates losing big in "close" races. So if Harold Ford stays within 5% of his opponent, businessman Bob Corker, it may indicate that white electoral prejudice in the South is waning (or that anger over the President and his war in
Second, make sure to keep an eye out for the results of the anti-abortion referendum in
The Morning After
What do the Democrats stand for? But what if, as some pollsters, pundits, and even Republican prognosticators are suggesting, those
From the opinion polls, we already know that most Democratic voters this time around will see the taking of the House, or all of Congress, as a mandate to begin a draw-down of American troops in
An indicator that voters know the Democrats ran on a non-platform is the fact that independent voters favor them in polling by two-to-one margins mainly because they are incensed with the President and the GOP. As the Washington Post put it:
"Independent voters may strongly favor Democrats, but their vote appears motivated more by dissatisfaction with Republicans than by enthusiasm for the opposition party. About half of those independents who said they plan to vote Democratic in their district said they are doing so primarily to vote against the Republican candidate rather than to affirmatively support the Democratic candidate. Just 22 percent of independents voting for Democrats are doing so 'very enthusiastically.'"
A Democratic victory, if it actually occurs, will be a statement by independent (and other) voters that they disapprove of Bush administration policy on a wide range of issues, not an ideological tilt in support of the Democrats. But then how could it be? Today's Democrats essentially stand for nothing. They are the not-GOP Party.
Will a Democratic victory mean a "mandate" for change? Do the Democrats need to avoid political positions? Those of us who are actively hostile to the Bush administration tend to excuse the absence of a Democratic program as a necessary ploy to win the election. Laying low and not being too "left wing" are, the common wisdom goes, the keys to winning independents -- and thus the election. Many of us expect that the Democrats, once in control of all or part of Congress, will see themselves as having a mandate from the people to be much more liberal than their campaigns have suggested. This, I suspect, is an illusion -- and this cynicism is, unfortunately, supported by our recent political history.
Remember, as a start, that Bill Clinton's 1992 election was based on a similar "anti-Republican" appeal. Yet, once in office he proved himself to be a "modern Democrat" by, for instance, advancing the GOP agenda in eliminating much of the welfare system, adopting a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military, and abandoning a national health plan. Then, of course, came the Republican "revolution" of 1994, which really did drastically alter policy. The GOP made an explicit and vociferous break with the failing policies of the Democrats, began the most serious drive of our times to rollback history to the days before Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, and never flinched from taking strong stands.
Since that year, the Democrats have found themselves increasingly locked out of power, while the GOP has finally inherited the mantle of the established party with the failing policies. Instead of riding back to power on a dramatic set of alternative policies as the GOP did, however, the Democrats -- like Clinton -- are mimicking parts of the GOP platform, while arguing that the Bush administration administered it in an inept, extreme, and corrupt way.
This strategy may indeed get them elected if the Karl Rove system of political governance finally comes apart at the seams, but it won't work to generate the changes in policy that so many of us desire. Instead, we can expect Democratic leaders, suddenly invested with the power of the subpoena (but probably little else), to investigate past Republican sins while attempting to prove that they can, indeed, pursue a less overtly offensive Republican program more honestly and efficiently than the Bush administration has. Just as the Democratic leadership has promised, they will probably continue to support fighting the disastrous wars in
Could the Democrats win in 2008 on the basis of actual differences in policy? Only if they tried to win over the American people (including independents) to a genuinely different platform. On the Iraq War alone, look at how close ex-Marine Paul Hackett came to winning a 60% Republican congressional district in Ohio back in 2004 on a simple platform of withdrawal from Iraq.
Or look at the actual attitudes held by independents. According to a typical recent poll, only a third believe the war is "worth fighting"; three quarters think the country is "headed in the wrong direction"; only 37% approve of the job Bush is doing. Doesn't this suggest that such voters might indeed be receptive to ideas that dramatically challenge Bush administration policies?
But, let's face it, even if such a strategy could win, the Democratic leadership will not follow the path laid out by the GOP from the 1970s through the 1990s as they toppled an entrenched Democratic establishment. They may want to win on Tuesday, but what they don't want is a mandate to lead Americans in a new direction. In the end, they prefer to hang in there as the not-GOP Party, pick up old-hat and me-too policies, and hope for the best.
What's at Stake in This Election
As in 2004, there is no mystery about what the voters think when it comes to this election: It is a referendum on Bush administration policies in which unhappiness over the war comes first, second, and third. And this is why, no matter what the Democrats do afterwards, the 2006 midterm elections whose results we will all be anxiously watching on Tuesday are so important. If the Democrats prevail, however narrowly, against a world of massively gerrymandered seats, Republican finances, blitzes of dirty ads, the presidential "bully pulpit," and well-planned campaigns of voter suppression, American -- as well as world public opinion -- will interpret it as a repudiation of Bush administration war policy. And this will become a mandate for those who oppose these policies to speak and act ever more forcefully. With or without Democratic Party leadership, this added momentum might even make a difference.
Michael Schwartz is Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]