Here are some themes to look for while watching the returns that will determine the outcome of the election.
Originally posted at The Root.
Like millions of Americans, I’m attending an election return party with friends next Tuesday night. Thrown by one of my closest friends, I’ve been laughingly told that the only reason I’m invited is because I professionally study American politics. What she should know is that political scientists are not necessarily the best prognosticators due to our heads being collectively stuck either in the sand or among the clouds. I’m also a political junkie—a much sounder credential for an analyst! Wearing both hats, here are some themes to watch for while watching the returns that will determine the fate of the nation for the foreseeable future.
Battleground states are of course a key indicator to pay attention to next Tuesday. What is different this time is that the number of states that could be critical is larger, and this works to Obama’s advantage. The key state that has been in the Democratic column that McCain is trying to win is Pennsylvania. Obama is running solidly, if not comfortably ahead in Pennsylvania a week before the election. It is very bad news for Obama if Pennsylvania breaks for McCain. Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, North Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, Florida, and Ohio are all states that have gone for Bush that are in play this time. Colorado and Virginia appear to be solidly trending toward Obama, and with Pennsylvania should be enough (with Pennsylvania) for an Obama win even without Florida and Ohio. It is also the case that an Obama win in either Ohio or Florida would represent very good news for Obama. McCain has to hold on to every state that Bush won and flip Pennsylvania to have a realistic chance of winning—possible, but at this writing very unlikely.
Uncertainty in the polling is also greater this election cycle and makes prediction somewhat more problematic than usual. There are several sources of uncertainty this time around. One factor is the extremely high level of early voting, particularly by African Americans. This has been a focus of the Obama campaign and seems to be working. It also means that exit polling might be somewhat more inaccurate in some locales (in the South for instance) if the early voting totals are not taken into account. Another source of uncertainty is how the undecided will break. One analysis suggests that while Obama has a large lead in the national popular vote, the Electoral College vote is closer due the claim that undecideds break for the white candidate when there is a white and black candidate contending. That type of analysis suggests that Obama could win the national popular vote by a large margin but lose the Electoral College—a scenario worst than that which played out in 2000. I think this analysis is wrong. My count using this methodology still has Obama in the 280s—comfortably over the 270 electoral vote threshold needed to win. It still bears paying attention to how undecideds are breaking and whether there is a last minute shift in how the polls are trending. Which brings me to the last source of uncertainty—how are the white Americans breaking whom are “uncomfortable” with the idea of a black president, but have economic interests much more in line with Obama’s than McCain’s. Reports from Pennsylvania and elsewhere anecdotally suggest that class interests are trumping racial concerns. If this trend holds, it makes the likelihood of Obama winning Pennsylvania, Florida, and/or Ohio much greater.
Control of Congress is of course another critical issue. If Obama is elected, he will need large majorities in both houses to govern effectively. In particular, if the Democrats achieve their still unlikely goal of achieving a filibuster proof 60 seat majority in the Senate, Obama would have the potential power to govern with the same power as Johnson in the mid-1960s. Only one Senate seat held by Democrats is competitive. Mary Landrieu, however, appears to have a comfortable lead and is expected to hold her seat in Louisiana. It would be bad, but not disastrous, news for the Democrats if Landrieu goes down to defeat. There are several Senate seats currently held by Republicans that either are expected to flip to the Democrats or are now considered tossups. Democrats could very well break through in North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole probably will not hold on to her seat, but even Southern seats in Mississippi, Georgia and Kentucky are beginning to make Republicans mildly nervous. If you start seeing seats in states like Georgia going to the Democrats, it portends a massive senate victory for the Democrats. A good state by state guide can be found here. Generally we should see a large increase of seats for the Democrats in the house. A net Democratic gain of at least 20 seats would represent a substantial Democratic House victory.
Attacks on the democratic process are an ongoing concern. I have already talked about the racist attacks aimed at Obama as well as attempts at vote suppression (link to Wednesday article here). A good summary of some of the possible areas of contention on election day can be found here. Charges of voter fraud by the GOP in order to suppress turnout, particularly by minorities, is escalating. The Supreme Court ruled against attempts by Ohio Republicans to make it more difficult for hundred of thousands of likely Democratic party supporters from voting. In an end run around the Supreme Court the Bush administration is attempting to use the Justice Department to intervene on the side of the Ohio GOP. Another front of GOP attacks is against the abundance of small donors (under $200) that the Obama campaign has been able to attract. This attack has yet to garner much traction, but might become a front with which to harass an Obama administration if he goes on to victory. Viewers on Tuesday should be alert to reports particularly from battleground states about substantial problems with challenges, voters being frustrated, and court challenges. These have the potential to at least cause confusion on election day.
Finally, there is always the possible of an October surprise to confound the dynamics at the end of a bitter campaign when the stakes are even higher than usual. One type of surprise takes the form of even starker attacks on a candidate. For example, the GOP is now claiming there is “new” “evidence” that Obama is a dangerous leftist (for both the charge and the debunking of the charge see here. Along a similar vein, the Republican National Committee waited until the last week of the campaign to launch an ad that once again tries to tie Senator Obama to Reverend Wright. As one commentator suggested, we knew this was coming. More traditional, is a major foreign policy crisis that emerges or manufactured on election eve. Unprecedented, deadly and dangerous U.S. military incursions into Syria could be seen in this light. The basic electoral dynamics in this election suggest that even an “October surprise” is unlikely to reverse the basic strong trend indicating an Obama victory.
Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.