Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Election 2014: Looking for the weathervane

THE NEW MSNBC pre-election promo ad made its debut over the weekend. The refreshingly speech-free ad features a number of the channel’s hosts and personalities and friends, holding fingers to their lips — fingers marked with the word “VOTE.” After several seconds of this, the ad finally drops the big reveal in another card:

“The Time for Talk Is Over.”

All due props to the folks at MSNBC for this soundless call to civic action, but in some important ways, they couldn’t be more wrong. The time for talk may well be over for the punditburo —  the Beltway crowd and the analysts, the seers and Sabbath gasbags who’ve been talking about the upcoming election since the last one was over.

For most of the country, the time for talk — for a serious discussion of the issues local and national, among themselves and with the people they know and trust — is just getting started. And to go by a variety of recent opinion polls of those American people, they’re talking by not saying very much that’s committal one way or the other. At least out loud.

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As opinion polls come back with results as gridlocked and inconclusive as we think Congress is, what comes clear is an electorate wrestling with a choice of undesirable outcomes: two more years of stalemate and stratagem from a Congress determined to do as little as possible as long as possible; or two years of a unified Congress free at last to exact its own privatizing, corporatist agenda under a majority-Republican banner.

The early money said Republicans were a lock to recapture the Senate, if just barely. That may or may not happen, but what’s been missing in recent weeks is the cocksure certainty that it will happen.

To a great extent, recent polling, demographic assumptions and research used by mainstream media, political analysts and the campaigns themselves have been forced into a state of unknowing, an uncertainty  that suggests the election six days away may be more of a horse race than many have believed. They’re all looking for the weathervane to know which way the wind blows, and all that many campaign seers see right now is the dead calm of no discernible wind at all.

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IN THE Daily Beast on Oct. 22, veteran political reporter Eleanor Clift reported on a recent focus group of women in Charlotte, N.C., and posited their response on the candidates in their pivotal state as typical of voters around the country:

The women gathered around a table Monday night in Charlotte and in New Orleans are registered voters, but this election they’ve pretty much tuned out politics. It’s just too depressing when all the candidates do is bash each other. And world affairs are no comfort either, with Ebola surfacing as the latest scary thing.

Better to put on blinders, they say, and focus on home and family.

The fact that [Sen.] Kay Hagan in North Carolina and [Sen.] Mary Landrieu in Louisiana are women doesn’t much impress these voters, dubbed Walmart Moms for their shopping habits and having at least one child under 18 at home. When asked whether they would vote for Hagan or her challenger, Republican Thom Tillis, they resisted siding with either candidate. Asked if Hagan deserves reelection, not a single hand went up -- which is the same thing that happened when asked if she didn’t deserve reelection.

“All those ads and you don’t know one way or another?” the moderator pressed. Many millions have been spent on television ads in North Carolina, as groups on the right and left try to sway the electorate.

When would they decide? “When it gets closer to the time,” one woman said. How would they decide? “Google it,” said another. When? “Probably the night before.”

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WHAT CLIFT reported is both dispiriting and encouraging. It’s dispiriting because it dovetails so seamlessly with the longstanding political truism that midterm voters don’t show up, as a matter of course — and also because it suggests that, despite years of living with Hagan as their senator, these North Carolinians are even disengaged as to what she’s already done in the state they live and work and pay taxes in.

But it’s perversely encouraging too. It means that despite millions in TV ad money flooding the North Carolina market (about half and half for Democrats and Republicans alike, The Wall Street Journal reported), voters aren’t being pushed into deciding anything on the weight of those ad buys. At least not yet. Whoever wins or loses the ad war really doesn’t matter — not to the public those ads are aimed at, anyway.

Neil Newhouse is encouraged, too, but for other reasons, not necessarily correct. “If control of the senate goes through North Carolina, then these women are ripe for the picking,” said Newhouse, the Republican pollster whose Public Opinion Strategies firm conducted the Charlotte focus group, with Democratic strategist Margie Omero of Purple Strategies.

But if they’re “ripe for the picking,” why haven’t they been picked yet? The power of TV and direct-mail advertising isn’t to be overlooked in a hot race like North Carolina’s. But the question remains: With just days before the election, what more can you do to reach, to persuade these presumably persuadable voters that you haven’t already done?

Omero told Clift: ““There’s a much lower level of engagement than you’d expect given all the ads, and all the money. They’re tuning it out.”

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One reason for disengagement may have to do with efforts, loose in the nation, to suppress voter turnout altogether, and it’s in this matter the Republicans face the biggest risk of blowback — of people finally deciding to show up at the polls out of civic pique, people coming to the conclusion that even if they don’t want to vote, they’ll be damned if one party or the other is gonna stop them from voting.

Republican efforts to curtail exercise of the American franchise are an inherent contradiction. There’s something fundamentally twisted and wrong with a political party that wants the American people to cast a vote expressing their resentment at the same time that party’s doing everything it can to stop a lot of the American people from voting at all.

Undeterred, they’re taking a different familiar tack. The two epidemiological preoccupations of the moment — Ebola and ISIS — are being symbolically exploited by the GOP. Republicans in the states up for grabs and on Capitol Hill have been trying to nationalize the midterms, trying to make November 4th the date of the national immunization election — the date to purge themselves of all things Obama, and by extension the candidates of his party, and everything “bad” that’s happened under his watch.

The fact that the real Ebola and ISIS are very much scourges loose in the world can’t be laid at the administration’s feet. But it’s that sense of a loss of control over anything, a powerlessness against a threat that seems to grow as much as the threat itself (or, in the case of Ebola, faster than the threat) that the Republicans are working hard to tweak to their advantage, painting themselves as the necessary inoculation, the shot in the arm America needs.

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BUT IRONICALLY, the GOP strategy seeks to capitalize on a situation they helped create: the dark national cynicism about anything being accomplished on Capitol Hill, and an unalloyed skepticism about government by either party. (One reason for that: the GOP’s continued obstruction of Obama’s Surgeon General nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, on purely political grounds.)

The public’s pox-on-both-houses attitude toward government obviously hurts the party in power the most. The Obama White House and its operatives are the first and most obvious targets of opportunity for the free-floating rage that animates the public discourse and poisons persuasion.

But the closeness of so many of the big Senate races — several well within the single-digit margin of error — indicate that the public recognizes the GOP’s responsibility for the gridlock in Congress. Republican candidates would be winning everywhere hands down if that weren’t true.

In the Kansas Senate race, for example, incumbent Republican Pat Roberts is tied with independent challenger Greg Orman, 46 percent all, in the latest Monmouth University poll.

In the Oct. 13 Survey USA poll, Democrat Michelle Nunn led Republican David Perdue, 48 percent to 45 percent. And in a very recent Real Clear Politics survey of Senate races, none has more than a 2-point difference either way: in South Dakota, Dems up by 1; in Montana, GOP up by 1; in New Hampshire, Dems up by 1. And so on. Hollywood couldn’t script a bigger cliffhanger.

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One race has drama that shouldn’t have been so dramatic. In Kentucky, polls are statistically knotted between incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell has lately been pulling away from Grimes; Real Clear gives him a 4-point advantage right now.

It didn’t have to be this way. From the beginning, Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state, has been a game, fresh-faced contender for the seat long occupied by McConnell, who’s ossified into being something of a political institution in the Bluegrass State.

But Grimes may have done herself and the Democrats’ hope of holding the Senate no good when, in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, she refused to say whether she voted for President Obama in either 2008 or 2012 — picking exactly the wrong time and forum to double down on her faith and reliance on the sanctity of the secret ballot.

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ALL IN ALL, seven times in seven days, Grimes refused to answer a question whose simplicity is only devastating if you try to get around offering a simple answer. McConnell’s apparently gathering lead may be attributable to this single unforced error.

Want proof? A Bluegrass Poll conducted before Grimes’ vote stonewalling found 80 percent support for Grimes among the state’s black voters, 8 percent of the state’s total. A Bluegrass Poll conducted after Grimes refused to answer the question found 60 percent support among black voters. McConnell’s favorables increased by seven points.

Black Kentucky voters, mostly dead-set against actually pulling the lever for McConnell, might well be equally dead-set against making a midterm party-line vote for a candidate that took them for granted — and who, corrosively enough, wouldn’t even own up to voting for the standard-bearer of her own Democratic party.

Grimes’ unfortunate stonewalling may or may not have had a fatal impact on her campaign. But for that misstep, some Kentucky voters may decide that (cribbing that line from “War Games”) the only way for them to win may be for them not to play. Nothing reifies the rationale of a stay-at-home voter like a candidate who gives that voter a reason to stay at home.

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Another Senate race is also showing how hard it is to handicap this election. Against the prevailing campaign rule of tacking to the center, Democrat Rick Wieland has been running an unabashedly liberal campaign in a decidedly conservative state. Bloomberg News went so far as to say Wieland was “channeling the ghost of George McGovern.”

Since then it’s gone south. Wieland has slipped in a three-way race against Republican Mike Rounds and independent candidate Larry Pressler. Rounds has been surging; he’s currently up over Wieland, his nearest challenger, by nine points, 42 percent to 33 percent, according to the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader and KELO-TV..

But — and it’s a big but — 10 percent of voters are still undecided.

From state to state, race to race, all of this suggests the presence of a wider electorate that’s not willing to accept the transmitted wisdom of the East Coast thought leaders under the D.C. bubble.

It’s happening widely enough that it also points to an electorate that’s almost going out of its way to frustrate the Beltway Nostradami. Like voters are doing it on purpose. Some of the media’s already voiced the possibility that, with certain states facing possible runoffs and others (like Alaska) not likely to have final Election Night numbers for days or even weeks, we may not know conclusively who won Election 2014 until ... 2015.

Nobody knows nuthin’, goes the saying, one that could have been tailor-made for this election. This is the cliffhanger we deserve.

Image credits: Voter promo image: MSNBC. US flag weathervane: Pat Roberts and wife: Grimes and Bill Clinton: Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press. South Dakota voter poll graph: Sioux Falls Argus Leader/KELO-TV.

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