Important, but not critical

In an August interview of President Bush, Larry King popped the question. Here’s the official transcript.

KING: Is this the most important election ever?

BUSH: For me it is.

(LAUGHTER)

That, of course, was the correct answer. And laughter was an appropriate distraction from King’s absurd question. But like most blowhards, the self-importance and conceit of this election refused to be deterred by derisive laughter.
In an August interview of President Bush, Larry King popped the question. Here’s the official transcript.

KING: Is this the most important election ever?

BUSH: For me it is.

(LAUGHTER)

That, of course, was the correct answer. And laughter was an appropriate distraction from King’s absurd question. But like most blowhards, the self-importance and conceit of this election refused to be deterred by derisive laughter.

In the final weeks of the campaign, we frequently heard that the 2004 election is “the most important one in my/our lifetime.” My personal list of people duped by this notion is too long to mention here in full, but I’d like to identify at least a few of the misguided souls who publicly pushed this pretentious puffery: John Kerry, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Edwards, The Dixie Chicks, Jesse Jackson, Rob Reiner, Dianne Feinstein, Pearl Jam, Barbara Boxer, R.E.M., George Pataki, Bruce Springsteen and John McCain.

As so many rock-and-rollers seemed to embrace the self-importance of this election, perhaps it would be helpful to place my own analysis in the context of the Shangri-Las’ oldie-but-goodie line about a boyfriend: “He’s bad, but he’s not evil.” That’s the way I feel about this election: “It’s important, but it’s not critical.” Because it’s not critical, it couldn’t have been the most important election in our lifetimes.

The concept of “critical elections” was perhaps most elegantly described in Walter Dean Burnham’s 1970 book Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics. Burnham labeled elections as critical whenever the voting results in a long-term change in the national issue agenda and there is a shift in partisan identification that gives one party united control over the presidency and Congress.

By any of these measures, the 2004 election was not critical. I don’t think there was or will be any major shift in the national issue agenda, though some post-election analysis seems to highlight the growing importance of “moral value” issues. There was no significant shift in partisanship, except possibly a slight drift of Hispanics toward the Republicans. And control over the White House and Congress remained unchanged.

There are only two considerations that could possibly make this an important election in the annals of history. First, turnout rose significantly for only the second time since the 1960s and even exceeded the Perot-inspired rise in turnout of 1992.
When the final numbers are in, turnout will probably be the highest since 1968.

Second, the margin of Republican victory in the Senate may allow there to be a rapid succession of Supreme Court appointments and confirmations that alter judicial decision-making and thereby the nation’s laws.

The rise in turnout is interesting, but I’m not sure that it alone confers a special quality on this election. Momentous turnout would have inspired higher turnout almost everywhere, but that’s not what happened. I have looked at Florida counties as an example. Florida was expected to be close and was. There was lots of emotion spilling over from the 2000 recount. The two tickets took innumerable swings through the state in the final days of the campaign. And I have to assume that each party apparatus was working the grassroots to turn out their partisan registrants.

When the voting was done, things looked very different from what you might expect. Statewide turnout increased from 70 percent in 2000 to 74 percent, but was all over the map, from just 57 percent in little Hendry County to 82 percent in mid-sized Flagler County. Importantly, turnout in key 0 large counties like Broward (Fort Lauderdale) was unimpressive. Just 66 percent of Broward voters cast presidential ballots, up a single percentage point from 2000, hardly indicative of the most important election in the long lifetimes of the senior condo dwellers living there.

Time and perspective will be the ultimate arbiter of this election’s importance in the scheme of things. It may one day be no more than the election that the Dixie Chicks got wrong.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.