According to which political scientist or politician you listen to, mid-term elections are a referendum on the party in the White House, or, as Tip O’ Neill had it, "all politics is are local." Neither of these are quite right for thinking about this election.
I came to this view afer reading a 20 year old article by Pat Caddell, whose polling expertise should not be slighted even if his opinions are often loopy. He wrote in 1981 that there is always a small segment of voters who move away from seeing an election as a candidate versus candidate situation, and see the election as a referendum type situation instead. If enough of these voters move as a block in one direction, a large swing occurs, such as happened in 1980 and again in 1994 for the Republicans. It may have happened in a small way in 1998, when Republicans lost across the board after reasonably expecting modest gains.
It is hard to read the tea leaves for next Tuesday with this possibility in mind. But the case for Republican pessimism is stronger than the case for optimism. The economy is a source of anxiety, though polls show this close as between which party would do a better job. The Iraq issue is supposed to help Republicans, but I have some naggng doubts; I think a lot of swing voters may be nervous about the issue--many people tend to be skittish about war until the shooting actually starts. Iraq might actually cut against Republicans with a few voters who think that it would be good to have more Democrats as a check on Bush. (Never underestimate the cognitive dissonance of the American voter, is a useful maxim to keep in mind.) These voters might make the difference in a few close races.
So the interesting question to watch is whether there will be a discernable and directional referendum phenomenon at work in this election. Despite the intensity of the two parties, it is hard to pick up right now. But then, it didn’t show up in the 1980 and 1994 elections until the last 72 hours or so, and it never showed up ahead of time at all in 1998.
Stay tuned for Monday’s predictions. . .