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Why the November Election Will Be Unprecedented

Gallup just released its weekly “generic” poll, and for the second week in a row it is forecasting a colossal wipeout for Democrats — with likely voters voting Republican by a margin between 12 and 17 points. Rasmussen, widely and unfairly considered biased towards Republicans, has shown a markedly smaller Republican lead, but this week its likely-voter number has Republicans besting Democrats by 8 percent. Meanwhile, statewide and district-wide polls suggest that a minor surge by Democrats at the end of September seems either to have evaporated or was never all that real in the first place.

The potential for a GOP landslide has been much-discussed. One thing that has been less noted is the extraordinarily dramatic nature of the voter turnaround here. In 1992, the election that preceded the one in November 1994, the non-Democratic vote for president nationwide was 57 percent (Bush + Perot), and  Republicans actually picked up 9 seats in the House. It is true that the 1994 elections came as a huge surprise, but that was in part due to an odd misreading of the election results in 1992 by pundits and pollsters and Bill Clinton, who staked his first two years on a massive government health-care plan rather than taking account of the fact that 19 percent of Americans had just voted for a lunatic single-issue candidate who spent a year yelling and screaming about the size of the deficit. Those Perot voters took a look at Clinton and simply integrated themselves into the GOP electorate.

The story of America since 2006 is radically different. In the two elections preceding this one, Democratsoutperformed Republicans nationally by a margin of 53-46 both in the 2006 midterm and the 2008 Obama triumph. The results in 2010, if they go as it appears they will, are unlike those in 1992 because there was nothing in 2008 that anticipated them.

An 8-t0-15 point Republican margin in 2010, which seems increasingly possible, will represent a partisan and ideological turnaround of 15 to 24 percent. That is without precedent in the modern era. At the presidential level, Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980 was a landslide but still featured a shift away from Carter of 11 points among the electorate (Carter dropped from 51 percent in 1976 to 40 percent). George W. Bush did increase his own vote total by 22 percent between 2000 and 2004, but that was an affirmation of what was taken to be a successful first term, not a repudiation of the party in power (and John Kerry increased the Democratic vote total over 2000 by 15 percent).

Michael Barone has described the current political dynamic as suggestive of a new “open-field politics” in which every election is any party’s to win. Certainly, the fact that the majority of the vote went from center-left in 2000 (Gore+Nader=53 percent) to center-right in 2002 and 2004 to liberal left in 2006 and 2008 demonstrates a far greater ideological and partisan fluidity than we’ve ever seen. But Barone’s term doesn’t quite get at the vertiginous effect of a shift as extreme as the one we may be seeing in 2010.

There’s no reason to think that independents and disaffected Democrats are going to become Republicans, the way the Perotistas did. But the goings-on after Barack Obama’s inauguration may have created a new swing-voting camp of anti-liberals, at least as far as Democratic party orthodoxy defines “liberal,” and how this new camp views the post-November political dynamic will define American politics for the next decade.



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