The pre-election weekend polls show a surprising number of close races, which should come as a surprise to no one.
Open seat races are often won in blowouts. Challengers usually defeat incumbents by just a few percentage points--if by even that much. It’s a hard thing to do, which is why incumbents are so infrequently defeated--at least infrequently as a percentage of the total number of seats up for election at a given time.
The only truly safe bet is that the Republicans are likely to increase considerably the number of governorships they hold across the country. And for two reasons. First, next to their ballot for president of the United States most voters consider the vote for governor to be the most important one they cast. Second, what has driven this election are voter concerns about--almost every survey agrees--lack of jobs, taxes, and the economy--issues governors can address directly in their campaigns and during their term of office.
The situation regarding Congress is much more fluid, despite what the national polls and predictors say. The generic ballot numbers and enthusiasm gap may weigh heavily in the GOP’s favor, but, as others among my bloleagues here on Thomas Jefferson Street have repeatedly pointed out, the generic numbers do not predict outcomes; they only suggest the national mood. Elections by district are head-to-head, candidate-to-candidate, name-to-name, where party identification doesn’t matter as much as partisan or, more important, personal affiliations and feelings.
It is extremely likely that largest percentage of losses the Democrats will experience among incumbents will come in seats considered “presidentially” Republican--meaning that more often than not the GOP presidential candidate carries them even as the Democrats elect the congressman or senator.
It is almost certain there will be at least a few surprises. There are always one or two chuckleheaded incumbents that are not on anyone’s radar screen who haven’t worked hard enough, have run bad campaigns or taken things for granted whose first call the day after the election is to Harvard to inquire about temporary jobs at the Kennedy School.
Assuming for a moment that the GOP does post big gains on Election Day, it is not at all certain they won’t get still bigger. Remember in the days and weeks following the 1994 election a handful of House Democrats--who had just been re-elected as Democrats--joined the GOP along with two apparently solid Democratic U.S. senators. Almost all of them won re-nomination in the GOP the next time around--and those who were re-nominated all won re-election.
There are a handful of U.S. senators not currently part of the GOP conference who could, conceivably, vote to help the GOP organize the Senate along majority-minority lines--especially if the Democrats end up with a new floor leader more liberal than the current one--or even switch sides and give the GOP an outright majority. But that’s all for later.
A lot of what will happen Tuesday and beyond depends, however, on whether the experts who called 2008 a realigning election that moved the country to the left were right or wrong. Closely tied to that is the question of whether Obama’s campaign team--in the broadest terms--are really as good as we were told they were or if they were just lucky.
If it really was a realigning election then there’s a lot going on that hasn’t shown up in the polling data. Remember “Dewey Defeats Truman!” If the Democrats are as good at grassroots mobilization and driving turnout and other Election Day gimmicks as the GOP thinks they are--there’s a lot of evidence this is still the case, that they are as good as some experts say--a lot of Republicans are going to wake up disappointed Wednesday morning.
If, on the other hand, Team Obama was more lucky than good in 2008 then the 2010 election is more on the order of an overdue market correction than the complete collapse of the Democratic Party for a generation--even if the Senate flips along with House. For that there will have to be a national, rather than a “nationalized” election, which won’t occur until 2012.