Tod Lindberg

Not-so-great political expectations

Posted by Tod Lindberg on October 31, 2006

The Washington Times

Here’s an observation for one week before the midterm: Throughout the Bush administration, Democrats have generally believed that they are poised on the brink of victory, which makes sense to them as a matter of right: They deserve to win because Republicans deserve to lose. Republicans, for their part, have generally believed that Democrats have it about right: The Republican Party fears defeat is at hand, and that, in truth, the party has it coming.    

For each of the past four national elections, and at various intermediate points, we have seen this pattern. It has always been wrong, of course. This is not to say that it will be wrong again this year. But like the stopped clock that is right twice a day, its supposed accuracy will be a coincidence and not due to explanatory force.     

In 2000, Democrats were sure Al Gore would win. Of course, many think he really did. But in any case, Democrats were scratching their heads about Mr. Gore having blown it by letting it get so close that the GOP could steal it. As for Republicans, the weekend before the election, when the Bush drunk-driving story broke, there was a genuine moment of recoil and uncertainty: Who was this guy and did he really deserve to be president? The sentiment was nearly a self-fulfilling prophecy; I join the analysts who think that’s how Mr. Bush lost the popular vote.    

The 2002 election was the post-September 11 election, and the expectation on the part of Democrats was that they would pick up seats because that’s what usually happens in midterm elections. By then, they were in control of the Senate thanks to Jim Jeffords‘ defection from the Republican Party. Sure, Mr. Bush was riding a wave of post-September 11 popularity, but few were those who saw the loss of Max Cleland and control of the Senate coming. Republicans didn’t. Democrats were flabbergasted.     

In 2004, Democrats were confident they could take down Mr. Bush, who after all had led the nation into an unnecessary war, in their view, and one that was going badly. Surely voters would judge this unacceptable. Just to make sure, they found a candidate who had fought in
Vietnam to head the ticket. And they began telling themselves a story about an invisible army of new voters that was going to materialize at the polls and sweep the discredited Mr. Bush away. So sure were they that when early exit polling on
election day tilted massively their way, they believed it.     

I didn’t. Given the choice between the conclusion that all the pre-election surveys by numerous independently operating pollsters had failed to capture what was going on out there and the conclusion that something was skewing the exit polls, I went with the latter hypothesis. But most Republicans did believe late that afternoon that Mr. Bush was going down. And really, he wasn’t very good in the debates, was he? And while Iraq was the right thing to do, the intelligence was seriously screwed up. Etc.    

What does this have to do with 2006? Quite possibly nothing. We have been hearing about a discredited Mr. Bush and a coming Democratic wave that will sweep the party back into control of Congress for about 10 months now, which is to say, from the point at which it was wildly premature. It may, indeed, be correct, though. True, some of the more serious Democratic prognosticators have been trying to scale back expectations. They are reading the same polls I am, which indicate that while they will make gains in the Senate, not enough to take control. And there is no surge in Democratic support now in evidence, the post-Foley floodwaters that swamped the Republicans in the first weeks of October having receded to some degree.    

The House, however, is another story, and the Democratic expectation of victory there verges on certainty. Republicans, for their part, mostly seem to think they deserve to lose. Not that Democrats deserve to win, mind you, but what does that matter?     

Since I have been writing skeptically about this element of Democratic and Republican political psychology for a while now, I am at risk of being too fond of my narrative in much the way I think Democrats and Republicans are too fond of theirs. But while I wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats came out on top in the House, with one week to go, neither would I be surprised if they came up just a little short.

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