The Midterm: Predicting The Postmortem genre: Polispeak

Election 2006

Every election cycle the media scrambles to quickly characterize and define what the results actually mean and what message has been given by the voters. This election will be no different though it may turn out that voters have delivered a far more complex message and one that may demonstrate their acumen to discern fact from fiction as well as their prevailing commitment to moderation. A new Los Angeles Times article speculates that this election may turn out to be about the voters in the center having their say.

WASHINGTON — In American politics, this might be the year that the center strikes back.

For six years, President Bush and the Republican congressional majority have governed behind a distinctive political strategy that focuses on mobilizing their hard-core supporters with an aggressively conservative agenda, even at the price of straining relations with moderate and independent swing voters.

Indeed, key GOP strategists argue that in this polarized political era, so many Americans have hardened in their loyalty to one of the two major parties that hardly any swing voters still exist.

But this year it appears that reports of the death of the swing voter are premature.

In races in virtually every corner of the country, key Republican House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates are facing imposing, sometimes cavernous deficits in the traditional center of the electorate, among voters who describe themselves as independents and moderates.

If that trend holds through Tuesday, it may not only sweep Democrats into control of one or both chambers of Congress, but could also ignite a debate in Republican ranks over the continuing viability of the base-centered strategy devised by Bush and key advisors such as Karl Rove.

"You can make a more realistic assessment of this when you see where the losses are, but [the message] is going to be that swing voters still count, and sometimes the more you cater to your base, the more you turn off swing voters," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Stanley B. Greenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist who dueled with Bush's team in 2000 and 2004, is even more emphatic: If the election results follow the trajectory of the latest polls, he says, "I think their whole model is going to lay shattered in pieces."

As I ponder this midterm election, my own observation is that most Americans anticipate the partisanship in politics…but they also prefer that governance should be about resolving issues that have the interest of all Americans at their core. For the duration of the Bush administration, that has not been the case. Initially, I suspect that many voters were willing to play ball because they generally supported the President's positions on what have been described as wedge issues...which I think are better defined as values issues.

I think it worked because America has long been influenced by strong religious beliefs. Initially, the Bush administration's approach seemed appealing to voters as it appeared to mirror their basic values. Further, the Bush administration did a good job of defining its opponents as anti-family, anti-values, and anti-religion elitists. At the same time, most people want validation of their basic core beliefs and the more absolute that is the better they feel...but that can also backfire. In that regard, situations like Enron, Katrina, the Abramoff scandal, the Mark Foley scandal, and now the Ted Haggard scandal create anxiety for good people. These kind of events force many voters (not all) to broaden their view and to reevaluate both the motivations behind the political process (the pursuit of power) and the prudence of seeking to impose values as opposed to the need to focus on living them.

I think the agenda offered and the image portrayed by the Bush administration satisfied for many what exists in us offered the tidiness of a fairy tale and the satisfaction that comes with believing one is on the correct side of right and wrong and that that equation is black and white. We're all vulnerable to the lure and the luster of that scenario...though we almost always find that it is an illusion and that life is far more complicated and requires far more reflection.

"A huge part of my strategy has been to work on expanding the party," Mehlman said, through systematic outreach to Latinos and African Americans, and the use of advanced "micro-targeting" technology to find GOP-leaning voters in predominantly Democratic communities.

But for years, Rove and his top lieutenants have touted their belief that in this highly polarized era, fewer than 1 in 10 voters still swing in their allegiance between the parties from election to election. One of their key assumptions has been that the vast majority of voters who call themselves independents actually vote like reliable Democrats or Republicans, though they don't accept the label.

Those conclusions led the White House, in the reversal of the usual practice, to direct more of its campaign spending in 2004 toward mobilizing the Republican base than converting swing voters. It also reinforced Bush's inclination to pursue an ambitious conservative agenda at home and abroad that largely unified rank-and-file and congressional Republicans in support but generated near lock-step opposition from Democrats.

But this year, it appears that less of the electorate is permanently locked down than the White House theories projected. With Bush's approval rating among independent voters below 30%, polls in every region of the country show independents, who made up about a quarter of the vote in each of the last two elections, moving sharply against Republican candidates.

The belief that swing voters are virtually extinct "has led to a lot of President Bush's problems," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "Because what it leads you to do is blow off the middle [in your decisions] and only worry about the base. And there are lots of voters who seem very inclined to punish President Bush in this election for behaving that way."

The error in the Bush / Rove calculation is to believe that people will remain at the extremes. Yes, there are those who will always be extreme...the bell curve proves as does human nature. Notwithstanding, there exists a self-moderating nature within most people and when they perceive themselves to be too extreme they will eventually make an adjustment...even if it requires settling for less than the whole pie. In the end, I believe that means that any coalition that is created by an assemblage based upon rhetoric that is predominantly extreme cannot be sustained over time. Further, in order to create such a majority coalition requires a false message that also cannot be sustained.

One might equate it with having a football team made up of over forty players like Terrell Owens. It looks like a winning team, it offers the promise of victory, but in the end it fails because a team made up of only people at the extreme eventually succumbs to division when the players are all unable to satisfy their very narrow and uncompromising demands. Two truths exist to undermine this Bush / Rove strategy. One, the coalition will never be made up of individuals that are all as extreme as Terrell Owens so it isn't an unwavering coalition and differences will eventually be exposed. Two, it is impossible to satisfy the needs and demands of a coalition based solely upon extremist rhetoric...someone will eventually demand more tangible results than can be delivered or that will seem to be unreasonable to some members of the coalition.

In the 2002 congressional contests, postelection surveys showed that Republicans ran even with independent voters. In 2004, Bush lost them narrowly to the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry.

But this year, in contests as diverse as the gubernatorial races in Colorado and Michigan, the Senate race in Pennsylvania, the highly contested House race between Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) and New Mexico Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, and open Republican-held House seats in Arizona and Colorado, polls last week showed Democrats leading among independents by at least 20 percentage points.

In a compilation of more than 41,000 automated survey interviews conducted last week in competitive congressional districts from coast to coast, the nonpartisan Majority Watch project found that independents preferred Democratic candidates over Republicans by 52% to 39%.

If Bush generates a surge of GOP turnout that enables Republicans to do better than expected Tuesday, his base-oriented approach could solidify its dominance in the party.

Big Democratic gains, on the other hand, would likely be prelude to the most open questioning of Bush's governing and political strategy that the president has faced since taking office.

"You want to be able to mobilize your base without alienating independents," said one senior House Republican, who asked for anonymity when expressing doubts about White House strategy. "We've been able to do the first; I'm not convinced we have been able to do the second. And that could be a very dangerous thing come Tuesday night."

They say that time is the great equalizer and it seems that this midterm election may well prove that point. I'm reminded of an Italian saying that was spoken many times in my family..."You have to eat a hundred pounds of salt with someone before you will ever know them". I think this 2006 midterm election may tell us that voters have eaten enough salt to know that they can no longer embrace the Bush administration and the politics of division.

I find Karl Rove to be a fascinating figure...primarily because he has sought to manipulate voter psychology. Frankly, he's been pretty successful in his efforts and that is noteworthy. Unfortunately, he seems to have forgotten the fundamental principle behind the practice of psychology. It is possible to obtain power over people if one is so inclined...but it can only be sustained through persuasion. Karl Rove attained the power that he and the President sought, but it seems that they are about to lose it because once they held power, they seemed comfortable to abandon the need to be persuasive.

In the end, history may be unkind to Karl Rove. When I recall the famous Lincoln quote, "You can fool some of the people all of the time...and all of the people some of the time...but you can't fool all of the people all of the time", it looks like Karl Rove's thought he could apply this same principle to only fifty one percent of the voting public and still succeed. Rove recently stated that he wasn't concerned about the poll numbers being reported in the media and asserted that he actually had "THE numbers" that mattered. I could be wrong, but if "The Architect" built his house with this math, it may not weather the wave that looks to be headed his way.

Daniel DiRito | November 5, 2006 | 9:25 AM
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