washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore


Well, sports fans, after three big hours of sleep, I’m probably feeling like a lot of you–especially those of you suffering from an Exit Poll Hangover. More about that later, along with lots more about non-presidential results from yesterday.
But despite what you are hearing from many quarters this morning, the presidential contest has not been decided, and in another example of Things I Wish I Hadn’t Been Right About, it’s all coming down to provisional votes in Ohio. Forget about Iowa and New Mexico; they just don’t matter. If Kerry manages to pull ahead in the final vote in Ohio, then all the hype, all the red ink on the network maps, all the stuff we’re going to (ironically) hear about Bush’s popular vote margin, are irrelevant; Kerry will be inaugurated as POTUS 44.
Can it happen? Sure, though the stupidity of our electoral system makes it hard to know whether the odds resemble a full court hook shot at the buzzer, or something a little more likely.
Bush’s “final” margin in Ohio is about 130,000 votes. Nobody knows exactly how many provisional ballots were cast in the Buckeye State yesterday, but Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican with no particular reason (other than national media exposure) to guess on the high side, says the number may approach 175,000. For reasons too numerous to go into right now, Kerry will get a very high percentage of those ballots if they are counted. There are also maybe 100,000 absentee ballots that haven’t been counted yet, with no real indication how those may cut. And finally, there were enough election-night irregularities in Ohio–including lots of extraordinary delays in allowing people to vote–to suggest a statewide recount would be in order, especially given the high stakes.
So far Bush has eschewed a definitive victory claim, but as the picture in Ohio gets clearer, we may see the White House and its media allies go into full cry about all the godless liberal trial lawyers who are trying to “steal” the election by completing the count. And the situation will not be helped by the leisurely pace that Blackwell seems to be signalling for adjudication of provisional ballots.
But John Kerry did not create the mess in Ohio; it’s been building for months, and many of us have been frantically signalling for quite some time that getting a full and honest count there might be very difficult. So let’s wait and see, and in the interim, gird up our loins for a serious effort in the immediate future to bring this country into the modern era of election procedures. It’s insane that we are once again in the dark about the identity of the president-elect on the day after.

Back to Ohio Provos

The late worm may be turning. In Ohio, estimates are that somewhere between 125,000 and 200,000 provisional ballots–which aren’t being counted right now-have been cast. These could turn the state. The other states where exits polls showing Kerry beating Bush are trending towards Kerry in late returns.
Don’t believe the hype.

Tube Blues

This has changed a bit, since the nets finally called PA for Kerry, but the picture of the presidential election coming across on the tube and the underlying reality are pretty different.
Unless you buy into the theory that the exit polls have systematically and nationally undercounted Bush’s vote, most of the key states still out lean Kerry. In Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin–states where the raw vote being shown on television gives Bush the lead–much of the key Democratic counties are still out. Kerry’s pulling ahead in New Hampshire. And we don’t know much from the west.
Turn off the tube, take a nap, and check back in the middle of the night.

More Exit Poll Brain-Teasers

The CNN web site has posted final exit poll data for Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. It has Kerry winning men by 52-48, and women by 56-43 in PA. He wins men by 52-47 and women by 58-41 in NH. But neither state has been called yet for Kerry. What do you think’s going to happen in these states in the end, Mr. Holmes?

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.