For any political junkie, elections are an emotional roller coaster. We all want to score points on important issues, to see the public's priorities shift our way, to have an intelligent debate about things that really matter. But we also want to win. For this reason it's hard to avoid watching the polls and contemplating cheap stunts to manipulate public sentiment.
This fall the polls are driving us nuts. This may be the last hurrah of old style phone polling. The increased acceptance and spread of new communications technologies like cell phones, caller ID, and internet telephony make it harder for pollsters to get a good statistical sample over the phone. But even if they could get a good sample, they might miss the boat this year.
This is going to be a very close election. Last winter the Republicans still thought they could ride the war on terror to a landslide victory this fall. Later in the summer, some of us allowed ourselves a moment of optimism when it looked like people were growing critical of Bush's many failures. But things have tightened up. We Democrats may have dreamed of clear repudiation of the Bush Doctrine and the Republicans may have dreamed of a generation of counter-revolutionary one-party rule, but it ain't gonna happen that way for either of us. It's going to be close and run right up to the wire.
This very closeness limits the usefulness of the polls. Polls show big general trends across big groups. Good poll professionals can wring an amazing amount of useful information out of a small sample (most national polls are based on about 1100 responses) but small groups remain invisible unless specifically targeted. In a very close race, a few hundred votes in the right place can determine the results. A national or even state poll can't measure these hundred vote groups.
Look at the potential for just a couple groups to throw a monkey wrench into things:
- Gay Republicans - The Log Cabin Republicans have got to be the most despised PAC in the country. But jokes aside, they could play a role in this election. We all assume that LCRs call themselves Republicans because they are more active in protecting their economic interests than their social/rights interests. The Bush administration has hit them with a double whammy this year. Not only has it come out openly hostile to their social interests and human rights, it has done a crappy job of taking care of almost everybody's economic interests. The GOP may feel confident that they can spurn this group because they all live in blue states, but they seem to be forgetting that one of the largest concentrations of gays in the country is in south Florida.
- Howard Stern Fans - Stern is mad at the Bush administration, he has lots of fans, his fans are rabid, and he is popular in Florida and Pennsylvania.
- Arab Americans and Muslim Americans - In 2000, Bush was the first presidential candidate to openly court the Arab/Muslim vote. It worked too. This year he hasn't a chance with this group.
- Miami Cubans - This has traditionally been one of the most dependable of Republican constituencies. Two things have changed this year. First, the old knee-jerk anti-Castro Cubans are aging. The new generation admits to having more diverse political interests, thus making the Miami Cuban community harder for one party to claim. In addition, Bush's tightened travel ban only pleases the most rabid of the old anti-Castro crowd. Many saner Cubans resent the loss of contact with their families.
- Hispanic Southwesterners - For over twenty years the Republicans have been trying to secure this group. Though some of their social policies appeal to many Hispanics, they counter that advantage with their policies on race, class, and immigration. Nevertheless the group remains a real wild card because it is decidedly un-monolithic and prone to swing. The only thing clear is that they are growing in numbers, bringing into play the formerly dependably Republican states of Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado.
- Native Americans - This is a group that has traditionally had a low turnout. This is changing. Casino wealth has made many communities in Indian country more engaged in taking care of their interests. A number of very well run voter registration and education drives have made them more significant. In about a half dozen states west of the Mississippi, Native Americans are a significant group in local politics. In New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado they could affect a close presidential race.
- Fiscal Republicans - Bush's policies have not been good for fiscal Republicans. Sure they love the idea of big tax cuts and eat up rhetoric about ending the IRS, but that's only one side of their agenda. Most fiscal Republicans are also motivated by eliminating the debt, balancing the budget, and shrinking the government. Bush has spectacularly failed them on all of these counts and many have begun to question whether we can survive a second term of Bush.
- Libertarians - Libertarians share most of the interests of the fiscal Republicans, but also oppose government intrusion into social issues and are rights freaks. Most Libertarians are anti-environmental and Bush has satisfied them on that count but failed on most others. And the John Ashcroft Justice Department has been one unbroken nightmare for Libertarians.
- Isolationist Republicans - These guys must be about as happy as the Log Cabin Republicans about now.
- Military Families - Old conventional wisdom held the military, ex-military, and military dependents to be a safe preserve for Republicans. There are clear signs that many of them are unhappy with Bush. The cuts in funding for veterans' hospitals and dependent education, the stinginess over raises and combat bonuses, the stop loss orders, the federalization of the National Guard, and the utter incompetence of the civilian leadership in the war have more than a few complaining. Ironically, the military might not ever have been as Republican as we thought, but it definitely isn't now
Are all of these groups going to turn out in large numbers to vote for Kerry? Probably not. Of the traditionally Republican voters, some will vote for Kerry, some will vote for third parties, and many will stay home. Many will not be able to break the habit of years of voting Republican, so they will hold their noses and vote Bush anyway.
Neither side needs big numbers to win; they just need enough numbers in the right places to win. Another conventional wisdom of this election is that it will turn far more on tuning out the faithful--as opposed to winning the undecideds--than is usual. That's true to a degree. Motivating and turning out the faithful will be a major element in the winner's strategy. So will turnout's evil twin: demotivating and suppressing the turnout of the other side. Along with these two drives, the winner will need to work to locate and turn out these other strategic constituencies.