RALEIGH – We’ll know Tuesday night (though I suppose it could technically be early Wednesday morning) whether the expected Democratic takeover of the U.S. House and expected Republican retention of the U.S. Senate will come to pass. To be honest, I have great reluctance to offer a prediction, because of what I see as major uncertainties about such factors as the effect of changing telephone habits on polling, the ability of Democrats to build a modern turnout operation to rival the GOP’s, and the efficacy of late media buys (for which Republican candidates have more money) given early voting and the declining market for network TV.
I can imagine three different scenarios for the congressional outcomes, along with potential explanations:
• The “Karl Rove Is A Genius” Scenario – About a dozen GOP losses in the House, two or three in the Senate. Republicans retain control on Capitol Hill.
This could happen if Rove was right to be so ebullient about the effectiveness of the Republicans’ volunteer-based, date-driven turnout operation and if he and other Republican insiders were right to be dismissive of the publicly available polls for ineffectively screening their samples for likely voters, thus polling many people who are anti-Bush, anti-Congress, but not really exorcised enough to get out and vote. Perhaps the events of the past week – John Kerry’s flub, Saddam Hussein’s death sentence, fallout from the New Jersey decision on same-sex marriage, Bush’s emphasis on security issues – brought enough GOP voters home and motivated them just in time. Or perhaps Republicans were never at risk in dozens of districts around the country in the first place. If the latter, there is something seriously wrong with the polling industry. It will have to come up with new ways of getting likely voters to answer the phone (or the email, or whatever) and talk to pollsters. By the way, even under this scenario, one of those losses would likely be Rep. Charles Taylor in North Carolina’s 11th District.
• The “Karl Rove Is A Jerk” Scenario – About 40 GOP losses, maybe more, in the House, and six in the Senate. Democrats regain control on Capitol Hill.
Now, Rove could be both a genius and a jerk, of course, but I think you take my meaning. In this scenario, his confident talk was all a ruse. Republicans either fooled themselves into believing that the polls were wrong or used the talking point to try to prop up Republican turnout in marginal districts. It didn’t work. A massive blue wave – generated by ill winds blowing out of Iraq, a spendthrift White House, and certain ethically challenged offices on Capitol Hill – washed away all that vaunted Republican infrastructure. It swamped the effects of the GOP’s final flurry of campaign ads. Most of the pollsters missed the size of the wave because they didn’t adequate reach younger voters who don’t use landlines and reject anything that sounds like a telemarketer. This is the reverse 1994, the Democratic breakout that will be in evidence all the way down the ballot, sustainable for years to come, and a portend for future success in presidential races. By the way, under this scenario only, Rep. Robin Hayes has lost his race in the 8th District.
• The “John Hood Is A Jerk” Scenario – About 20 to 22 GOP losses in the House and around four in the Senate. Democrats gain the House, Republicans retain the Senate, control of Capitol Hill is mixed and muddied.
This scenario assumes that what was publicly known – candidate match-up numbers, polling on voter intensity, money flows, turnout, past performance of the parties in key districts – was actually useful in prediction. That is, Republicans retained a turnout differential worth a point or two, which tipped a number of close House races their way but could not overcome six- or eight-point Democratic leaders going into Election Day in other races. With 45 or so Republican seats in play and only five Democratic seats in play, the 2006 game was always going to be played such that every kickoff would place the football between the GOP’s 45-yard-line and the goal-line. Republicans could score, but Democrats simply had many more opportunities to score. As for the Senate, the odds always favored a Republican retention simply because Democrats had to win almost all of the hot races to pull it off, and despite their momentum, it was just out of reach.
Why do I call this the “John Hood Is A Jerk” Scenario? Because while it is what I feel like I should predict, I am not confident enough to present it as the scenario. Yep, that’s a target on my spineless back. Shoot away.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.