The Washington Times

And the winner is – but perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Analysis first, verdict second – though even this procedure is controversial in this presidential election.

There are, after all, any number of true believers on the Democratic side who think that the story of election 2004 is going to be about how wrong the polls were. By this time tomorrow morning, in the true believers’ telling, John Kerry will have won the White House convincingly, and all of us unbelievers will be scratching our heads in wonderment about how such a huge surge toward Mr. Kerry and against George W. Bush eluded the pollsters.

The explanation for this is ready to go: An army of hitherto undiscovered new voters and an unprecedented Democratic get-out-the-vote effort. But is there really such an army? And will the unprecedented Democratic effort go simply unmatched by the GOP registration and turnout effort? Evidence, please? Never mind. The prediction itself – a big Kerry win – forms the basis of the explanation, not the other way around.

This has likewise been an election season full of talk about “momentum.” Unfortunately, once again, the talk has largely been one side, the Democratic side, telling itself that it has the momentum. Through September, Mr. Kerry had failed to mount a credible campaign, and Democrats were rightly worried. Then came the debates, and Mr. Kerry put himself back in the race: But what should have been interpreted as the avoidance of the collapse of the Democratic nominee was endowed by Democrats with significance far beyond: As a permanent shift in the momentum of the campaign from Mr. Bush to Mr. Kerry.

There was, of course, a shift, as Republicans scrambled to adjust their sense that the race was theirs going away. But the meaning of momentum in politics, I think, is the deprivation of your opponent’s ability to talk about what he wants to talk about because he needs to respond to something else. This shift in momentum against Mr. Bush lasted a few days. The only other shift since occurred in the few days after the final debate, when the Kerry campaign found itself distracted defending the candidate’s indefensible remarks about Dick Cheney’s daughter. Otherwise, both campaigns have been able to make the appeals of their choice. This is an indication that neither side has momentum over the other.

In general, I would say that “professional” Democrats – the partisans who do politics for a living or take the game as seriously as if they did – are hot and bothered over this election, whereas the “professional” Republicans seem a little more laconic. Why the difference? Democrats seem to have persuaded themselves that if Mr. Bush wins, they are confronting the abyss. Mostly, they think it is the country that confronts this abyss. That’s a good illustration of over-the-top partisanship.

It seems to me (with thanks to my Hoover Institution colleague Martin Anderson) that Democrats’ sense of existential dread is actually a product of the party’s staring into the nothingness of powerlessness: No White House, no Senate, no House, no Supreme Court, no Federal Reserve, a minority of governors, a minority of state legislatures. Republicans, on the other hand, could lose the White House but still retain an upper hand in five or six of these centers of power. The GOP’s fortunes as a party are not quite as fully on the line.

Also weighing in favor of the GOP’s sangfroid is the simple fact that Democrats’ main expectation about this election, namely, the collapse into discredit of the Bush administration under the weight of negative public opinion, simply failed to materialize. In the Democratic narrative of the primary season, voters long ago decided to fire Mr. Bush because of his incompetent management of the economy, exploitation of September 11 for partisan political purposes and misleading the country into an unnecessary war in Iraq. This narrative is, of course, simply unsustainable in the face of Mr. Bush’s persistent narrow lead over Mr. Kerry.

No, what we have here is an incumbent who is less popular than incumbents who have been reelected in the past but more popular than incumbents who have been turned out in the past. And we have a challenger who has never quite managed to escape his party’s general conclusion that the administration of George W. Bush has been a miserable and comprehensive failure, thereby preventing the Democrat from crafting a message persuasive to those who do not already share this view.

All right, then, prediction: The winner is George W. Bush, with just over 50 percent of the popular vote to John Kerry’s 48 percent. Mr. Bush will win 286 electoral votes, including Florida’s, Ohio’s, New Mexico’s and Iowa’s. It’s also plausible that Mr. Bush might win one of Minnesota, Michigan or New Hampshire, which I currently have in the Kerry column along with Pennsylvania.

I’ll say that the Republicans net one seat in the Senate, but not until the runoff in Louisiana. No change in the House.