Despite Democratic strength in the polls, some Republicans are oddly hopeful while some Democrats are nervously paranoid. They share a belief that a vast national GOP machine can preserve the party’s control of Congress no matter how bad the political climate gets. This machine can purportedly work all kinds of sorcery, such as (no kidding) rewiring the brains of American voters.
The notion is mostly smoke. Karl Rove and other GOP operatives are smart, but they cannot have the effect that their partisans pray for and their opponents fear.
Let’s start with campaign technology. Thanks to costly databases, Republicans have amassed detailed information about millions of households. They reportedly target voter appeals with stunning precision, sending one kind of message to snowmobile owners, another to Krugerrand investors, and so on. This “micro-targeting” helped tip close states to President Bush in 2004. But Democrats are starting to catch up.
And technology can only go so far. A sophisticated database may spot potential party supporters, but if they lack any reason to vote, no amount of micro-targeting will move them to the polls. In an election cycle of Foley, Abramoff, and Katrina, Republican phone banks may get a lot of hang-ups.
The GOP purportedly has a great financial edge. Indeed, the Republican National Committee has more money and is spending it more wisely than Howard Dean’s Democratic National Committee. Yet Democrats are compensating by relying on labor unions and other groups that are not formally part of the party organization.
To gain seats, Democrats need not outspend Republicans. Their candidates only have to raise enough money to be competitive. And as early as August, they had already reached that mark in key House races.
Gerrymandering is yet another ostensible barrier to a Democratic takeover of the House. The redistricting after the 2000 census did protect House incumbents, making it harder for the minority party to score gains. Six years later, however, the district lines are wearing thin. Because of demographic shifts, Democrats now have a shot at formerly safe GOP seats in Ohio, Illinois, Virginia, and elsewhere.
Other supposed GOP advantages have even less of a basis in reality. Some on the Left actually believe that that mass media have a Republican bias. It should not surprise NRO readers that content analyses and surveys show the opposite. Fox News is arguably an exception, but liberals overstate its impact. Bill O’Reilly’s audience is only a fraction of Katie Couric’s.
Oh yes, and then there is that Republican ability to cloud voters’ minds. According to linguist George Lakoff, Republicans have developed diabolical concepts — the death tax, the Healthy Forests Initiative — that “are instantiated in the synapses of our brains.” Yeah, right. This bunch cannot even drive home the distinction between odd e-mails and dirty instant messages.
One variation of this theme is the idea that Republicans will win with “hot-button social issues.” Take a good look: those buttons have gone cold. Despite passing a bill for a border fence — which may not actually go up — Republicans remain split on immigration. There is little talk about gay marriage these days, and for a simple reason. Either by ballot measure or act of the legislature, most states have already limited marriage to the union of a man and a woman. Despite worries about activist judges, courts have been upholding such limitations. Unless the judiciary changes course or public opinion takes a sudden turn, the issue is largely on ice.
As for affirmative action, Republicans went quiet a long time ago. Liberals have succeeded in using accusations of racism to silence debate on the issue. This fall, a measure on the Michigan ballot would end racial preferences, and the state’s leading Republicans have come out against it.
Republicans have lost the immigration issue through confusion, the gay-marriage issue through success, and the affirmative-action issue through surrender.
A combination of lucky breaks and Democratic mistakes could still avert disaster for the GOP. But don’t count on the Republicans’ magical power. It doesn’t exist.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.