The big election yesterday was the special election to fill the vacancy of the disgraced Duke Cunningham in the 50th Congressional District of California.
Both parties put lots of money into this contest. Democrats hoped that their candidate, Francine Busby, could win an upset victory in a district George W. Bush carried by a 55-to-44 percent margin over John Kerry in 2004. Republicans hoped their nominee, Brian Bilbray, who represented an adjacent district pretty close to identical to the current 49th District from 1995 to 2001, would hold on and win. He did. But I think the results were, to varying degrees, bad news for both parties.
Bad news for the Democrats because Busby did not win a substantially larger percentage than Kerry did 19 months ago. Kerry won 43.9 percent of the vote in 2004; Busby and one other Democrat (who won only 1 percent) won a total of 45.1 percent in the April 4 special primary (on which I commented here), and Busby won 45.5 percent yesterday. Democrats had hopes that an enraged Democratic base would turn out in larger numbers proportionately than an apparently discouraged Republican base. That didn't happen. That's not a good sign for Democrats in November. Republicans won in 2002 and 2004 in large part because they won the battle of turnout: John Kerry won 16 percent more popular votes than Al Gore, but George W. Bush won 23 percent more popular votes in 2004 than in 2000. The totals from the California 50th suggest that Democrats are gaining only a very small advantage in differential turnout this year, even though the national polls show Bush in much worse shape than in 2004 and suggest that Republican Party identification is down slightly.
Democrats may be inclined to discount this result because Busby last Thursday told a Hispanic audience in Escondido that "You don't need papers for voting." The remark was captured on tape and played over and over again by Republicans and on conservative talk radio. But the comment was not so far removed from the position taken by national Democrats on the issue of whether picture identification should be required of voters at the polls. That's supported by about 80 percent of voters but opposed by almost all Democratic members of Congress. It's an issue that Republicans can use against just about any Democrat in the falland probably will. On this issue, as on other noneconomic and cultural issues, Democratic candidates are far out of line with public opinion, and those vulnerabilities will not vanish this fall.
To a lesser extent, this result is bad news for the Republicans. Bilbray won only 49.3 percent of the vote, down from the 55.2 percent won by Bush in November 2004 and the 53.5 percent won by 14 Republican candidates in the April 4 special primary. An independent candidate who campaigned on the immigration issue got 3.7 percent (Democrats ran ads urging immigration opponents to vote for him); a Libertarian got 1.5 percent. Bilbray himself campaigned as a hard-liner on immigration, in favor of a fence across the Mexican border and against "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. So much so that John McCain refused to appear at a scheduled fundraiser for him.
The bad news for Republicans is that there is now more splintering on the right than on the left. Back in 2000, some 2 percent of voters nationally voted for Ralph Nader, even though there was no hot-button issue like Iraq to differentiate him from Al Gore. Less than 0.5 percent in contrast voted for Pat Buchanan. Conservatives were more unified than liberals. Now it seems to be the other way around. Discontent with Bush and/or the Republican Congress over immigration, spending, pork-barrel projects, the Dubai ports deal, the Republican leadership's protests over the search of Democrat Bill Jefferson's officeyou can probably add a few items to the listhas now evidently got more voters on the right willing to cast a protest vote. That's troublesome when you consider that the overall Republican lead in 2004it was 50 to 47 percent in the popular vote for the Housewas so narrow. Republicans can't afford to lose a lot of votes.
On balance, the bad news for the Democrats outweighs the bad news for the Republicans. So far, in actual elections, the bad poll numbers for the Republicans aren't being translated into increasing percentages for Democratic candidates. As month ago, after the primary election in Ohio, I wrote, "Somehow, despite all the discouraging news and dismal poll numbers, there are a lot of plodding, dull, dutiful people, too stubborn to take instruction from their betters in the mainstream media, who insist on going out and voting Republican." I would amend that now by striking the last two words and substituting "votingmostly for Republicans but in a few cases for protest candidates."
It's not clear how serious the problem of protest voting will be for Republicans in November. I'm not up on how many such candidates there are on the ballot, and a protest candidate in a highly publicized contest like this special election can get a lot more attention than the usual cats-and-dogs candidates voters may find below the D and R columns. Another caveat: There are still about 40,000 absentee votes to be counted, and California seems to take its good time counting them. Perhaps there won't be as many protest votes among the absentees, particularly since many of them are generated by the organizational work of the major parties. So let's postpone final judgment until the absentees are counted.