Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Post-Election Notes

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I’ve been poring over exit polls and other recent polls and analysis, and it’s fair to say that the old political axiom, “All politics is local,” didn’t apply yesterday. Voters were mostly thinking of national issues. If the Democrats saw large losses, it’s largely because voters weren’t happy with the Democrats’ response, or lack of response, to the economy. The Democrats’ measured approach to economic matters, trying to dole out favors to big-money interests according to someone’s idea of a fair proportion in order to push the economy forward, has struck voters as more casual than desperate.

This does not mean that voters have confidence in the Republicans. You have to be desperate to pick out a group of people who are old, fat, rich, and comfortable and ask them to shake things up. Voters felt that there was nowhere else to turn, but realistically, they are not hoping for much.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds, in fact, that 59% of Likely U.S. Voters think it is at least somewhat likely that most voters will be disappointed with Republicans in Congress before the next national elections. That includes 38% who say it is Very Likely.

(That survey was taken in the last two days, just before and during the election.)

If Republicans aren’t gloating as much you would expect, it may be because they are already worried about the federal budget. I am sure no one really expects the House Republicans to “work to balance the budget,” as many of them promised during the campaign, but they will have to rein in their deficit-happy tendencies. It would be an embarrassment to deliver a budget that is obviously dysfunctional, like the PowerPoint-on-paper “budget plan” the Republicans introduced last year, and a different kind of embarrassment to just rubber-stamp the White House budget proposal, but it will be politically impossible for the Republicans to agree among themselves on any spending cuts, so they are forced to work with some Democrats to deliver a budget.

Exit polls hint at an electorate still fuming over the Wall Street bailout — another point that defies traditional political wisdom. Voters supposedly have short memories, but more than two years later, they remembered to vote out some of the deal-makers behind that disastrous legislation.

In comparing the polls to the election results, we have learned that there is a systematic problem in political polling. Depending on the polling approach, the polls lean Republican by 2 to 7 points, which is quite large in political terms. This is why the huge Republican sweep that all the major media were predicting didn’t materialize — the predictions were based on polls with an inherent bias. This polling divergence would be higher in a presidential election or any other election with higher voter participation.

The problem with political polling is that it selects polling subjects based on wireline (or land-line) telephone service, which is declining rapidly, and more rapidly among voters under 40, Democrats, and liberals than among voters over 60, Republicans, and conservatives. This gives all political polls an inherent conservative Republican bias that will only get worse as wireline telephone service declines further. Pollsters will, I am certain, continue to look for ways around the decline in wireline, but it may very well be a problem we will have to live with for the foreseeable future.

Money by itself is not enough to buy an election. In California, two failed corporate executives spent a fortune trying to buy their way into political office — officially $162 million in the U.S. Senate race. The money did get voters to take the candidates seriously, and that’s nothing to sneeze at, but it apparently didn’t go much farther than that. Nationally, the Republicans surely got some advantage from the roughly $75 billion spent on their behalf by businesses (unofficially; official figure are much lower) but the effect was not as great as you might have imagined.