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The Couch Potato's Guide to Election Night

This election's success will be measured not only by the number of seats won. Here are some other issues to ponder.
 
 
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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 percent of potential voters (as reported in the latest New York Times poll) that "American troops would be taken out of Iraq more swiftly under a Democratic Congress." The more cynical among us hope for at least a few challenging congressional investigations of administration activities at home and abroad.

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 percent 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 Ohio and Pennsylvania. Because Bush is so unpopular and the GOP obviously so vulnerable, opinion polls tell us that there is tremendous electoral enthusiasm among Democratic rank and file -- and concomitant gloom and disillusionment on the Republican side.

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 Florida and 2004 in Ohio, fraud made a world of difference in close contests. As early as noon on Tuesday, you should begin to get a sense of how much of a problem fraud will be this time around.

Many people are terrified that the new electronic voting machines will be the means to falsify vote totals (as was apparently done in Ohio in 2004) and so steal elections -- especially with no paper trails available for recounts. However, the biggest threat is old-fashioned indeed: legal and illegal methods that block eligible voters from voting.

Two examples will illustrate how this can be done. In the 2000 election, Republicans in Florida disenfranchised over 10,000 voters, by purging names from the voting lists that happened to match the names of convicted felons. When these voters showed up at the polls, they were simply declared ineligible; and, by the time they took their case to court, George W. Bush was already president. (The excluded voters were largely African American and would have voted overwhelmingly in the Democratic column.)

In Ohio in 2004, election officials simply did not provide enough voting machines in predominantly Democratic areas, so many potential voters waited all day in endless lines without ever getting the chance to vote, while others grew discouraged and left. There seems little doubt that the excluded voters would have tipped the state to Kerry -- and this act of voter suppression wasn't even illegal.

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): Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia.

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 Ohio polls and be told they are not eligible.

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.

Election Night

Contested races: Of the 14 contested Senate seats, the Democrats currently hold six (Connecticut, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Washington State) and are favored in all of them except Connecticut, where Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the defeated Democrat, is leading as an independent. If Lieberman beats Ned Lamont, but then caucuses with the Democrats (not exactly a given, despite his promises), then in addition to holding those six, they have to win six of the eight GOP races.

Right now the Democrats seem likely to win three of these -- Pennsylvania (ousting the odious Rick Santorum), Ohio (barring massive disfranchisement and fraud) and Rhode Island (replacing the most liberal Republican in the Senate, Lincoln Chafee). The latest polls indicate that they are behind (but not out of it) in Tennessee (see below) and Arizona (where incumbent Jon Kyl is leading shopping-center magnate Jim Peterson). Their best chances to get those crucial three more seats are Virginia (where incumbent George Allen has given away the lead with verbal gaffs), Missouri (where Michael J. Fox and a statewide referendum on stem-cell research may put underdog challenger Claire McCaskill over the top), and -- most surprising of all ---Montana (where the Abramoff scandal has given challenger Jon Testor a slight lead).

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: New York (at least 5 contested seats) may be a real bellwether, since the results will come in early. All five of them are upstate Republican, and if even three go to the Democrats that could mean a genuine sweep to come (barring massive fraud elsewhere) - as well as being a signal of the emergence of a "solid (Democratic) North" that might in the future help offset the solid (Republican) South.

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 Indiana. There are three GOP House seats up for grabs in districts that were supposed to be Republican shoo-ins. Miraculously, Democrats are leading in all three, and the lead is approaching double digits in one of them (the 2nd district). If one or two of these actually go Democratic, you're seeing a small miracle, a tiny sign of tidal change in the electorate -- and the good thing is, the polls close early in Indiana, so what happens there could be a bellwether of change. But take note that Indiana passed "the strictest voter identification law" in the country; so watch out as well for frustrated Democratic voters turned away at the polls and a GOP sweep of these seats.

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 percent). 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 percent 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 Iraq simply trumps all this year).

Second, make sure to keep an eye out for the results of the anti-abortion referendum in South Dakota. This is a draconian measure making virtually all abortion illegal. It is meant as a full-frontal challenge of Roe v. Wade , offering the new Bush Supreme Court a future chance to weigh in on the subject. The latest poll suggests that it is losing, 52 percent to 42 percent, with only 6 percent undecided.

Third, Connecticut is fascinating because Joe Lieberman, defeated by anti-war Democrat challenger Ned Lamont in the primary election, is leading as an independent. He says he will caucus with the Democrats, but we should have our doubts. If the final tally in the Senate, for instance, is 50 Democrats and 49 Republicans, think what his vote would mean and what kind of horse-trading might then go on. After all, the GOP could then retain the ability to organize the Senate and appoint committee heads as long as he voted with them and the Vice President cast the deciding vote to break any 50-50 ties. The pressure would be incredible and so would the temptation for honest Joe to take a GOP dive. Remember, he's already shown himself more loyal to his own career than to the Democratic Party through his refusal to accept defeat in the primary. If things are close, this is a story that will eat up media time in the days to come.

The Morning After

What do the Democrats stand for? But what if, as some pollsters, pundits, and even Republican prognosticators are suggesting, those New York seats go Democratic, along with moderate Republican ones in Connecticut and previously red-meat Republican ones in states like Indiana? What if the Democrats win by 20-35 seats or more, as some are suggesting, decisively gaining control in the House?

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 Iraq and to bring the American part of that war to an end in some undefined but rather speedy fashion. As it happens, however, Democratic leaders do not see it this way. Their strategy has been to "lay low" and let anger towards Bush sweep them into office.

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 Iraq and Afghanistan more "effectively." They are also likely to continue the essence of Bush tax policy (more cuts, just not as favorable to the very rich), and to serve money to the Pentagon more or less on demand, but not to domestic "reconstruction" programs.

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 percent 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 percent 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 College of Global Studies at Stony Brook State University. For years he was part of the polling world, measuring attitudes and attempting to predict the political, economic, and social behavior of Americans. His current work, which has appeared frequently on Tomdispatch.com, is focused on the equally problematic goal of understanding the war in Iraq. His email address is ms42@optonline.net.

Michael Schwartz is a professor of sociology and faculty director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University.

 
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