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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

You Want Cautious Calls?

Well, it’s clear the networks are not exactly going out on any limbs in calling races. The polls closed in South Carolina more than an hour ago, and they haven’t called it for Bush yet. At 8:00, briefly at least, Wolf Blitzer said CNN “didn’t have enough information”‘ to call the District of Columbia for Kerry (they did eventually).
But here’s the weird thing about the media web sites (at least the two I checked: CNN and MSNBC). They’re publishing exit poll data, including candidate numbers, when the polls close, whether or not they’ve made a call. What’s sneaky about it is they don’t show totals, just all the breakdowns. So you can check out Ohio, and see that the exits have John Kerry leading Bush among men by 51-49, and among women by 53-47. Doesn’t take a statistician to figure out that the final exits for Ohio show Kerry winning 52-48.
And Ohio, folks, is the ball game.


Tension City

Well, the polls are beginning to close, and so far, the only competitive race that’s been called is a Kentucky House contestwhere GOPer Ann Northrup has survived again.
But all the evidence, actual and anecdotal, suggests a very close national election, with Kerry having an advantage in the presidential race.
There’s some buzz that fewer provisional ballots were cast today than some (including myself) had feared, and if so, that’s a good thing.


The Right’s Parallel Universe

One of the weirdest phenomena of this election day is the drumbeat of reports on conservative web-sites (Drudge, National Review Online) and Fox News about how Democrats are intimidating Republican voters. There was a breathless anecdote on NRO a while ago about some Pennslyvania GOPer being forced to–gasp!–cast a provisional ballot.
Now I don’t know if these folks are just continuing the pre-election GOP so’s-your-old-man effort to establish moral equivalency for their own strong arm tactics, or it’s just all they can think of to write or talk about.
The latest conservative media security blanket is the claim that pro-Kerry early exit poll results are meaningless because the sample is skewed heavily towards women. I’d bet you a ride to the polls that many of the people promoting this interpretation were warbling just a few days ago about how Bush’s appeal to “security moms” has wiped out the gender gap.
I guess you reach for the bottle that gives you the belt you need.


The Crazy Hours

Ah yes, here we are at that magic moment when every Washington Insider is frantically trolling for exit poll data. And numbers are flying around the phone lines and the internet.
But don’t get too excited. Some of the numbers are obviously garbled (the above link, for instance, has two separate sets of numbers from Wisconsin and Michigan). It’s unclear when they were harvested. We don’t know if they include early voting data (which is critical in places like Florida and Iowa). And if past experience is any indicator, this stuff morphs as it is transmitted from mouth to ear to web.
The first semi-official idea we’ll have of what’s really going on is when the networks begin their coverage and start to release voter responses to questions posed in exit polls. A big “wrong track” number would be a broad hint that Kerry’s doing well. A big plurality for “terrorism” as the prime voter concern would be good news for Bush.
But here are some things to keep in mind when the numbers actually start coming in:
1) The networks have said they won’t call a state until all polls are closed in it (e.g., no 7:15 calls for Florida this time).
2) They’ve also said they won’t call a state if the margin is within 1%.
3) They will be comparing exit poll data, which will probably include provisional ballots, with raw vote data, which won’t.
Because of the conservative nature of the decision desk rules this time, and the fact that provisional ballots counted later will probably break heavily for Kerry, I think it’s safe to say that if the race is called for Kerry tonight or in the wee hours of the morning, it will stick, and there’s nothing James Baker or the United States Supreme Court can do to change it.
If the race isn’t called when most of the non-provisional votes are in, then we could be, as so many of us have feared, back in banana-republic-land.


More About Provos

Here’s some more info about the provisional ballots that could decide this election. CNN’s legal beagle Jeffrey Toobin says this about the provos:
“Congress did not say how the states were to decide whether the votes cast by provisional ballot are valid. Some states already had provisional ballot laws, and thousands of those votes have been cast in the past. But states have varied widely in what percentage of provisional ballots ultimately are included in the final totals — from 10 to 90 percent. If one candidate is behind by fewer votes than the number of outstanding provisional ballots — and that could happen in at least a few states — the result of the state’s vote probably will not be known for a few days at the earliest.”


Voters Versus Organized Chaos

Early on this election day, reports from everywhere show incredibly long lines at polling places. And in many, many places, voters will be battling not only impatience and fatigue–and in some cases, bad weather–but disorganized and organized chaos in voting procedures.
The legal situation surrounding voting procedures remains chaotic going into election day. Last night a federal court of appeals panel, on a 2-1 vote (with the deciding vote being cast on procedural grounds) struck down two earlier federal district court rulings that would have banned partisan challenges of voter eligibility in Ohio. In New Jersey, a federal judge ruled that Republican efforts to use old voter registration lists as the basis of polling place challenges violated a 1981 agreement by the national Republican Party to no longer pull this sort of crap. (The impact of this decision is questionable, since GOPers will be in the clear if they don’ obviously use such lists).
But here’s the Big Bertha of brewing controversies, and a big part of the reason the GOP is investing in polling place chaos: the status of “provisional ballots.” Under the grossly misnamed Help America Vote Act of 2002, voters whose names aren’t on polling place registration lists, or whose eligibility is otherwise in question (e.g., because partisan goons have challenged them), will be handed a provisional ballot that legally cannot be counted until after election day, when the voter’s eligibility is adjudicated according to whatever system the jurisdiction has worked out.
Try to wrap your mind around the following number: an estimated 5 percent of votes cast nationally today will be “provos.” That’s more than 5 million votes, and an estimated 250,000 in Ohio alone.

I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that exit polls have been designed to systematically include or exclude provos, but since the networks and other news organizations will be using AP-complied raw vote totals to “adjust” exit poll projections, it probably doesn’t matter. Here’s the bottom line: tonight’s vote totals in many states will in all probability significantly undercount the Democratic vote, not only for president, but for Senate, House, and state and local offices as well. And that means (1) we can count on Republicans to issue victory claims in such cases, as in Florida in 2000; and (2) the adjudication and counting of provos could very well be the ball game, and will certainly be the subject of post-election day legal maneuvering and local election board shenanigans.
Decisive Democratic margins of victory, even without the provisional ballots, are about the only way this scenario can be avoided.


Sympathy for the Devil

Sometimes you just have to hate it when you’re right. I went a little over the top a few days ago, and predicted that Republicans would respond to Democratic and civil rights attorneys’ efforts to stop their voter suppression campaign by “pretending their goons are being intimidated and harassed.”
Sure enough, Josh Marshall reports that robo-calls in the Philly suburbs are telling voters that Democratic “trial lawyers” are trying to intimidate Republican campaign workers through lawsuits and such.
The “campaign workers” we are talking about are, of course, trying to intimidate and harass Democratic, and especially minority, voters.
Part of Karl Rove’s M.O. is to pull deliberately outrageous stunts and then use the opposition’s outrage to suggest moral equivalency between the two parties.
But this is even worse: arguing that those poor, bedraggled GOP vote suppressors are actually victims whose plight should command sympathy.
Unbelievable, but it’s happening.


Bush’s Big Gamble

If I might stand back for a moment from all the last-minute hysteria and offer a big picture observation, it seems clear that both the photo finish in this presidential election, and the incredibly savage tone of so much of the campaign, go back to a momentous decision that George W. Bush and his handlers made not once, but twice, since he took office.
Upon becoming president in the most controversial decision since 1876, and having lost the popular vote, Bush could have governed in a way that reflected a genuine commitment to bipartisanship, and a genuine humility about the lack of any real mandate for the conservative ideology that, after all, he mostly hid during the 2000 campaign. But he chose otherwise, and on September 10, 2001, looked well on his way to being a one-term president.
After 9/11, Bush had a second opportunity to unite the country, move beyond his conservative base, and maybe even get a few important things done outside a right-wing agenda of perennial tax cuts for the wealthy. But instead, he saw in the understandable preoccupation of the electorate with national security a path to re-election based on even greater partisanship, suppemented by an audacious effort to reward powerful constituencies and use the prerogatives of office to entrench himself and his party through any means possible.
From beginning to end, Bush has sought to do something which no major party presidential candidate in living memory has succesfully done: win by abandoning the political center altogether.
Now, many people on the Right, and even some on the Left, will tell you this supreme gamble is admirable because it shows Bush, Cheney and Rove would rather stick to their principles than compromise. But Bush’s re-election tactics show otherwise: they have heavily depended on things that have nothing to do with conservative principle, including relentless efforts to smear his opponent and distort his record and platform; appropriation of religious and patriotic symbols; deliberate promotion of divisive and phony cultural controversies; scare tactics that warn voters that a change of administration could lead to their fiery deaths; and construction of a cult of personality aimed not simply at mobilizing conservative voters, but at whipping them and their opponents into a frenzy of passion and hate. They’ve done this because it’s the only way they have a chance of winning without compromise or quarter–of elevating “our team” over “their team” as though this was the Thirty Years War rather than a democratic election. And the Republican leadership of Congress, and increasingly, Republicans around the country, have adopted the same savage approach.
These thoughts occur to me because part of my day job is to think beyond the election to what Democrats and the country as a whole can do to deal with two immediate crises–in Iraq and in the federal budget–and innumerable long-range challenges ranging from the global economy to climate change to the baby boom retirement, in an atmosphere of anger and mistrust that exceeds anything I’ve ever seen.
If there is a purgatory, lots of us will be doing some hard time to cleanse our souls of the nastiness of this campaign. Lord knows I haven’t felt this partisan in my life, and I’ve been an obsessive political junkie since 1960. But if anyone should be fearing actual hellfire for political sins, it’s the president and his people, who have deliberately, with malice aforethought, engineered this situation, in the pursuit of raw power.
Should Bush win his big gamble, there’s absolutely no reason to believe it will lead to anything other than more of the same.


Straws in the Wind

I just did a large conference call with DLC elected officals from around the country, and picked up a couple of interesting tidbits:
(1) One influential Iowa Dem said Democrats”absolutely cleaned their clocks” in early voting in that state.
(2) Another influential Dem from South Florida reported that minorities weren’t the only ones to heavily participate in early voting there; the “condo vote”–strongly pro-Democratic elderly voters in places like Broward County–also heavily voted early, with Dem operatives on hand with chairs and bottled water to help participants deal with long waiting lines.


A Second Shoe Drops in Ohio

Now there are two federal court rulings in Ohio declaring the state’s law allowing party reps to challenge voter eligibility at the polls unconstitutional, as a judge in Akron echoed a Cincinnati judge’s ruling late last night. GOPers are still trying to get a federal appeals court to intervene and overturn the rulings, but now they won’t have the excuse of divergent decisions at the district court level.
For once, maybe the good guys will be able to run out the clock.