Pundits, beware

As the Democratic party's nominating process draws to a close--more slowly than many in the chattering class would like--there's been some new hand-wringing over whether the Democrats have sundered their party so badly that they will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory this November. Pundits have been pointing to two poll results in particular--the ones where John McCain is keeping it close nationally, and the ones that show Democrats supporting McCain if their candidate doesn't win the nomination--as proof that the Democrats have done more harn than good to their party by having this protracted candidate battle.

In his column Friday, Paul Krugman pointed out some things that stay in the Democratic party's favor (even while engaging in some hand-wringing of his own).

Political scientists, by and large, believe that what happens on the campaign trail, while it gives talking heads something to talk about, is more or less irrelevant to what happens on Election Day. Instead, they place their faith in statistical analyses that identify three main determinants of presidential voting.

First, votes are affected by the state of the economy — mainly economic performance in the year or so preceding the election.

Second, the approval rating of the current president strongly affects his party’s ability to hold power.

Third, the electorate seems to suffer from an eight-year itch: parties rarely manage to hold the White House for more than two terms in a row.

This year, all of these factors strongly favor the Democrats. Indeed, the Democratic Party hasn’t enjoyed this favorable a political environment since 1964. Robert Erikson, a political scientist at Columbia, tells me: “It would be difficult to find any serious indicator that does not point to a Democratic victory in 2008.”
Frank Rich, in his column today, also takes a look at the differences between this race and previous ones.
This is not 1968, when the country was so divided over race and war that cities and campuses exploded in violence. If you have any doubts, just look (to take a recent example) at the restrained response by New Yorkers, protestors included, to the acquittal of three police officers in the 50-bullet shooting death of an unarmed black man, Sean Bell.

This is not 1988, when a Democratic liberal from Massachusetts of modest political skills could be easily clobbered by racist ads and an incumbent vice president running for the Gipper’s third term. This is not the 1998 midterms, when the Teflon Clintons triumphed over impeachment. This is not 2004, when another Democrat from Massachusetts did for windsurfing what the previous model did for tanks.
But while his examples are good--as are his statistics from later in the column--I think there's a more instructive example for why this election will be different--Louisiana in 1991, the race between Edwin Edwards and David Duke.

Now I want to be clear here--I am in no way comparing John McCain to the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. John McCain has many loathsome qualities, but that level of racism isn't one of them, so far as I know. But in 1991, turnout for that race was nearly 80% overall, a record, and African-American voters turned out at the same rate whites did, going overwhelmingly for Edwards. (One of the great bumperstickers from the time said "Better a lizard than a wizard.") Edwards won with 61% of the vote.

Why is this instructive? Well, while the national African-American community likely won't despise McCain to the same extent Louisiana African-Americans despised David Duke, they're also likely to be way more excited about voting for Barack Obama than they were Edwin Edwards. The motivation is likely to be at least equal--this will be an historic election, after all, and people like being a part of history. (Think about how the number of people who claim to have been at an event--like Woodstock, for example, rises exponentially with the time that passes.)

Previous turnout models for African-American voters in Presidential races are almost certainly going to fall short, simply because we're looking at a wholly new phenomenon here. We've already seen it in some of the primaries--younger people and African-American voters have turned out at unexpectedly high levels, which has caused Obama to outperform his polling numbers more than once. In the Edwards-Duke race I mentioned above, the polls going into the election had Edwards with a ten point lead, 55-45. He won 61-39, more than double the spread, and that difference came as a result of an unexpectedly high turnout. In that race, turnout was high across the board. In November, I think it's reasonable to expect a higher turnout in African-American communities than in others, simply because there will be greater motivation. African-Americans already vote for Democrats over 90% of the time, and I doubt that will change much with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.

Pundits will try to make this a closer race than it is, because that's what they do, but there's a real chance they're going to look pretty stupid if they underestimate the excitement this candidate is going to draw.

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