Fickle Voters

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History may declare the 2006 congressional elections the "Year of the Pendulum" in American politics. Voters' typically up-down, in-out, fickle nature seems particularly equivocal this election season.

This could be attributed to the increasing importance of the independent voter, creating a less predictable electorate. Or it could be due to the series of seemingly endless Republican congressional scandals (Abramoff, Foley, Weldon, DeLay, Ney, and Cunningham, to name the headliners) whacking voters for a loop one after the other. Whatever the reason, the shifts, rebounds, and pendulum swings seem to have helped turn some Democratic campaigns that seemed doomed to failure six months or a year ago into winners a week before the votes are tallied.

I think, for example, of two Democratic U.S. senators who launched their re-election bids under clouds of vulnerability, both of whom are now ahead by comfortable margins: Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Maria Cantwell of Washington. Stabenow is no stranger to squeakers. In her first Senate election, she closed a 17-point gap trailing former U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, in the last three weeks of the campaign. Most current Michigan polls show her ahead by double digits, including one released last Thursday showing Stabenow leading GOP hopeful Mike Bouchard 50 percent to 38 percent, with 11 percent undecided.

The Associated Press wrote of Senator Cantwell's re-election bid, "Polls show her stretching out the (once slim) lead that she has held throughout the long, expensive campaign, with her advantage now averaging about 13 points. A 10-point gap is a textbook landslide."

My favorite example, however, of the fickle electorate comes from the website of pollster Scott Rasmussen (rasmussenreports.com), which lists 12 changes in sentiment by voters in important Senate races since the beginning of September, as follows:

  • On October 16, we shifted the Virginia Senate race from "Leans Republican" to "Toss-Up."
  • On October 13, we shifted the Tennessee Senate race from "Leans Democrat" to "Toss-Up."
  • On October 10, we shifted the Pennsylvania Senate race from "Leans Democrat" to "Democrat."
  • On October 9, we shifted Michigan and Minnesota from "Leans Democrat" to "Democrat."
  • On October 2, we shifted Tennessee from "Toss-Up" to "Leans Democrat."
  • On September 25, we shifted Washington from "Democrat" to "Leans Democrat."
  • On September 18, Montana, Rhode Island, and Ohio all shifted from "Toss-Up" to "Leans Democrat."
  • On September 12, Washington shifted from "Leans Democrat" to "Democrat."
  • On September 8, Tennessee moved from "Leans Republican" to "Toss-Up."
  • On September 6, New Jersey shifted from "Leans Democrat" to "Toss-Up."
  • On September 5, Rhode Island moved from "Leans Democrat" to "Toss-Up."
  • On the first day of September, Rasmussen Reports changed the Minnesota Senate race from "Democrat" to "Leans Democrat."
  • Now if that isn't fickle, what is?