Thoughts in the Wee Hours of Election Night

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I have just returned to my hotel room after spending 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. in the decision desk room at Fox News Channel headquarters in New York. Because I was spending much of my time analyzing the tabulated vote as it was coming in for the obviously crucial House and Senate elections, I do not know for sure all the results–and so I may be getting some things wrong in this post. Also, I don't know yet the final percentages in many of the races. What I do know is that the Democrats have won control of the House, and seem to be on their way to about 230 seats–the number, as it happens, that Republicans ended up with after the election of 1994. That was a 52-seat gain for the Republicans; 230 seats would be a 27-seat gain for the Democrats. Impressive, and higher than I expected: Aside from the significant exception of 1994, neither party had made a net gain of more than 10 seats in the last 20 years. Also, it appears that the Democrats are on their way toward–if not absolutely assured of–a 51-49 majority in the Senate.

That I had always regarded as a possible and plausible but unlikely result: It meant that they had to win six of what turned out to be the seven seriously contested Republican seats: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Rhode Island, Montana, Missouri, Virginia, and Tennessee, and not lose one of their own (i.e., Maryland and New Jersey). They didn't lose either Maryland or New Jersey (although Maryland doesn't count its absentee ballots till Thursday, which is why Michael Steele's campaign challenged the networks' call of the race and the Washington Post rescinded its). And they lost Tennessee, narrowly. But Democrat Jim Webb seems to have won Virginia by something like 8,000 votes. Democrat Claire McCaskill seems to have won Missouri by a margin about as narrow as that by which she lost the governorship in 2004 and by which incumbent Jim Talent lost the governorship in 2000 and won the Senate seat in 2002. Fox News didn't call the race, because half the vote in St. Louis County was still out, and St. Louis County (which is separate from St. Louis City) casts 20 percent of the state's votes and is incredibly diverse, with its northeast areas being heavily black and voting 90 percent Democratic and its western areas being heavily exurban and voting 70 percent Republican. We had no way of knowing which half of the county hadn't reported, and accordingly held off on a call, although the (bipartisan group of guys) on the decision desk believed, as I did, that McCaskill almost certainly would be the winner. As for Montana, all signs pointed to a victory for Democrat Jon Tester. Incumbent Conrad Burns was mostly running behind his 2000 showing in rural counties that had 100 percent of precincts reporting, and in 2000 he won by only 51-47 percent; Tester carried Missoula County (a university town) with 64 percent, 5 points more than Burns's 2000 opponent won there; Yellowstone County (Billings), the state's largest, which voted 51 percent for Burns in 2000, was showing 51 percent for Tester with half the precincts in. You call a race only when you have 100 percent confidence that the candidate you call will win. As I sit here typing, I have high confidence, far above 50 percent, that Tester will win. But less than 100 percent.

As for Virginia, there will undoubtedly be a recount, and I suppose a reversal is possible. But Virginia tends to include all the absentee ballots in the initial count, and military ballots must be returned by Election Day and counted then or soon after–unlike some other states (Maryland allows them another week to come in). So I have to assume that it's overwhelmingly likely that Democrats will have a 51-49 majority in the Senate and, with Joe Lieberman's vote cast for him, that Harry Reid will be the next majority leader almost as surely as Nancy Pelosi will be the next speaker of the House.

If the Democrats do have a majority in the Senate, then, it'll be because they won almost all of the close ones. That happens sometimes. In 1980, Republicans won 11 of the 13 closest elections to the Senate. They ended up with a majority that almost no one in Washington expected a week before the election. In 2000, Democrats won five of the closest five elections. They ended up with a 50-50 Senate, which, with the party switch of Jim Jeffords in May 2001, became Democratic, and which almost no one in Washington expected a week before the election. This time it's a little different. Almost all of us in Washington expected that it was within the realm of realistic possibility, though a bit against the odds, that we would end up with a majority-Democratic Senate. And so, it seems, it will likely be.

Some Random Thoughts

The exit poll. The Edison/Mitofsky Research exit poll proved somewhat misleading, as past exit polls have. The Fox News decision desk personnel decided to abandon the exit poll entirely as a guide to calling winners on the grounds that it overstated Democratic percentages by 6 to 8 percent. They made this decision based on information from EMR that the actual tallies in the precincts tested showed Democrats winning 6 to 8 percent fewer votes than the exit pollsters from those precincts reported. Exit polls from 1992 on have consistently overstated Democratic percentages, most notably in the high turnout elections of 1992 and 2004. The late Warren Mitofsky, who created the first exit poll for CBS News in 1968, went back and examined the 2004 results and found that the biggest discrepancies between actual precinct votes and the exit pollsters' results occurred in precincts where the exit poll personnel were female graduate students. All those discrepancies overstated the Democratic vote. Joe Lenski, the current EMR boss, tried to hire fewer young women as exit poll interviewers. (Mitofsky died suddenly in December; he had been a friend since 1974, and I had lunch with him in Mexico City last June 30, two days before the Mexican election, in which his Televisa Mitofsky exit poll produced results that were spot on.) The fault may be with the interviewers (do they approach only the voters they think simpatico), but it may also be with the respondents. Mitofsky has told me that almost everyone approached to fill out an exit poll questionnaire in countries like Mexico and Russia does so, while about half the people approached in the United States refuse. Perhaps Republicans are more likely than Democrats to refuse, especially when the interviewer is a young woman whose appearance signals she is some kind of Bush hater. In any case, Lenski did not succeed in solving the problem. It's eminently solvable, but only at enormous cost: If EMR brought together all its interviewers on airline flights for centralized training, if it paid much higher fees for their work, etc. But would EMR's clients–ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC–pay something like five to 10 times the amount for their services (which is what it would require to take these steps)? Doubtful. So we must recognize that the exit poll is an imperfect instrument and use it for such insights as it can reasonably be expected to deliver and ignore it otherwise. That is what the Fox News decision desk decided to do on election night.

By the way, exit poll information was sequestered tightly until 5 p.m. ET. None of us knew any numbers until then. Fox News had two people sent to a central location in New York, who were allowed to have no access to cellphones, land lines, or E-mail. This proved to be a much better way to handle information with an inherently misleadingly wide range of error margin than the procedures used in the past, when large numbers of people from the various news organizations got the first tranche of numbers a little after noon ET. I remember seeing the first tranche of exit poll numbers for the various seriously contested states in 2000, a little after noon. They were all very close. I had a two-word reaction, of which I will share with you only the first word, which was "Oh."

The shape of the electorate. In earlier blog entries, I made much of the ABC/Washington Post, Pew, and Gallup polls (and if I had had the numbers I would have included the numbers of the Democratic Democracy Project as well) suggesting that there was late movement toward Republicans and that the Democrats would not make gains as big as previous polls suggested. The professional projectors–Charlie Cook, Stuart Rothenberg, and Larry Sabato–placed less credence in those polls. The results as they are known to me now suggest that Cook, Rothenberg, and Sabato were right in their assessments. The overall climate of opinion, even taken the late ABC/WaPo, Pew, and Gallup numbers–were adverse to the Republicans. Indications of increased motivation of Republicans to turn out and vote would seem to have been inaccurate. From where I sit now, and after looking at the numbers I have been looking at this evening, I would say that the truth is somewhere in between.

Certainly we didn't see the 2004 electorate, which according to the properly adjusted exit poll figures was 37 percent Democratic and 37 percent Republican. Republican Party identification was down, though not as far down as many October polls suggested. But those of us who had speculated after the 2004 elections that we might be entering a period of an enduring Republican majority have been pretty well refuted by the results. We can argue that a lot of Democrats won House races by campaigning as conservative on a wide variety of issues. And we can argue that the Democrats' victory margins in crucial Senate races were razor thin. But so were Republican margins in some of the crucial Senate races in 2002 and 2004 that made the Senate more Republican. Winning is important, even if the margin is narrow.

Still a 49 percent nation? In my Almanac of American Politics 2002 introduction, written soon after the 2000 election, I argued that we were a 49 percent nation, divided almost precisely evenly between the two parties. After the 2002 and 2004 elections, I argued, plausibly I think, that we were moving toward a possible Republican majority, albeit a very thin one. After this election, one could argue that we are moving toward a possible Democratic majority, albeit not a particularly big one.

I think that overstates things, though maybe not by a lot. Democrats' percentage of the popular vote for the House–precise figures are not at this writing easily obtainable–will surely exceed the 49 percent ceiling that Democrats have had on both their presidential and House vote between 1994 and 2004 (reached only in the Clinton percentage and the House vote in 1996). It will probably exceed the 51 percent ceiling that we have seen on the Republican presidential and House vote in the same period (reached only in the 2002 House vote and the 2004 presidential race). It will probably be more like the 52-45 percent Republican edge in the 1994 House vote, which the Republicans have failed to reach ever since. Especially since the Democrats seem headed toward about 230 House seats, the number the Republicans reached in the 1994 election (with party switches and special election victories, it reached a high of 235 and was 232 after the 2004 election).

My own view is that the Democrats this year, more than the Republicans in 1994, reached this level less as the result of a rejection of the ideology of the governing administration and more as a protest against the perceived incompetence of the governing administration. Iraq, Katrina, Terri Schiavo, Mark Foley: You get the idea. This election was conducted in something like an idea-free zone. The agenda of the Republican Party has been identified with the agenda of the Bush administration, set out in the 1999-2000 campaign cycle, many parts of which have been accomplished (tax cuts, education accountability, Medicare prescription drugs, defense spending increases) and some of which has been effectively stymied (Social Security individual investment accounts). The lead item on the Democrats' agenda is raising the minimum wage–a proposal that tests well in polls but is hardly a new idea (the federal minimum wage was passed in 1938) and is not an efficient means of economic redistribution (as any liberal think tanker will tell you). Their idea for increasing our national security, as the liberal writer Michael Kinsley points out, is to increase veterans' benefits (which the Bush administration has been doing)–although it's not clear that this would diminish the desire of Islamofascists to destroy our society or reduce our freedoms.

Anomalous results. One of Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman's talking points all year has been that Republicans this year, unlike Democrats in 1994, knew that they were facing a tough year and reacted accordingly. Many Republicans who were obviously in terrible trouble ended up winning, because they knew they were in tough contests, and responded accordingly. But in the negative climate for Republicans, some who had previously won their seats by wide majorities did not know they were in great trouble, and responded too late–and lost their seats. The summary page for realclearpolitics.com gives some examples:

  • J. D. Hayworth in Arizona 5
  • Jim Leach in Iowa 2 (in since 1977)
  • Gil Gutknecht in Minnesota 1
  • Jeb Bradley in New Hampshire 1
  • Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania 4
  • The conservative interval: What did it accomplish? There are many more issues to address, but it is 3:40 a.m. and I am not going to address them all tonight. Let's look at it this way: The Republicans controlled the House for 12 years–the third longest period of Republican control in history (after 1895-1911 and 1861-75). Democrats of course had a majority in the House (though their leaders often didn't have control) for a far longer period of 40 years (1955-95) and also for a 16-year period (1931-47). But let's look back on the Republican period recently. What did they accomplish?

    To answer that question, I think you have to look beyond Capitol Hill and consider the whole country. The big public-policy successes of the 1990s were welfare reform and crime control. Welfare dependency and violent crime were cut by more than 50 percent–more than anyone in 1990 thought possible. Key initiatives were taken not in Congress, but in the states and cities–on welfare reform by governors like Tommy Thompson, on crime control by mayors like Rudy Giuliani in New York City. Most of them were Republicans, but may were Democrats. Also, education reforms were undertaken, again more by Republicans (like George Bush and Jeb Bush in Texas and Florida) but also by some Democrats (like Jim Hunt in North Carolina). In all this, Congress and the Clinton and Bush administrations were interested and occasionally helpful bystanders. The Republican Congress passed welfare reform three times and, after Dick Morris told Clinton he had to sign it, he did so. Bush got a bipartisan majority to pass a federal education accountability bill that built on the successful actions of many states. Gun control, a federal initiative which had no realistic possibility of really reducing crime, was passed by a Democratic Congress in 1994. But the more realistic proposals, allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons and therefore to deter violent criminals from attacking decent bystanders, have been making steady progress in the states to the point that they now hold sway in states with more than two thirds the nation's population.

    The Republican Congress deserves great credit for resisting proposals to create the sort of government-run healthcare systems that are bankrupting Western Europe. The 1997 budget deal between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton cut the increases in healthcare expenses sharply; when that inspired protests against HMOs, the Republican Congress averted provisions that would have subjected them to regulation by government and predation by trial lawyers. Instead, employees exercised the option of exit (people who didn't like HMOs got out from under them). The Medicare prescription drug bill of 2003, a vast expansion of government entitlements, created a field of competition that dragged premium costs below expected levels, allowed grievants the option of exit and opened up the field of expanded options to high-deductible health savings accounts. The Democratic House will try to turn the clock back on these advances, but will probably not succeed during the next two years. The Democrats would like us to go slouching toward Scandinavia, even while Sweden and the Netherlands move in our direction to more healthcare options.

    2008? The 2006 cycle has had some obvious implications for 2008. George Allen and John Kerry, for obvious reasons, have been swept from the field. That presumably helps Mitt Romney and Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Clinton's turnout efforts in New York didn't produce the upstate sweep she must have hoped for: John Sweeney lost for scandal-related issues, and the Democrats did pick up the Oneida County-centered open seat. But evidently nothing else. Barack Obama remains a threat to the obvious Clinton primary strategy: sweep the South, where blacks are a majority or near-majority in Democratic primaries. On the Republican side, John McCain appeared on Fox (and presumably other channels as well) lamenting that Republicans had lost their way by deserting conservative principles. Giuliani, who campaigned gamely and in an intellectually interesting way, for Republican candidates, was not to be seen.

    A final note on populism. In cycle after cycle, we hear that certain forms of populism–full-throated opposition to immigration and free trade–will sweep all before them. The 2006 results, at least as I see them now, provide less than full-throated support for this proposition. Two of the loudest critics of illegal immigration–incumbent J. D. Hayworth and open seat primary winner Randy Graf, both in Arizona, where illegals have been famously streaming through the border–both evidently lost. And in upstate New York, where National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds was in terrible trouble after the Mark Foley scandal broke, his Republican-turned-Democratic opponent Jack Davis also lost, in a region where there had been a huge loss of manufacturing jobs. Nativism and protectionism are political weapons that in a certain light look very strong, which seem to be gleaming swords that will slay all before them. But, again and again, they crack like glass in your hand. If nativism can't work on the Arizona border, and protectionism can't work in upstate New York, where can they work?