What’s normal in November

What sort of election will occur on Nov. 4? Will it be momentous? A turning point in American history? One of a kind? Superlatives are in rhetorical abundance as we build up to Election Day. But is this election really going to be such a big deal? It strikes me that considerable evidence is accumulating that this could a pretty “normal” affair. The answer lies in definitions of what’s normal.

Decades ago, some smart political scientists developed a typology of elections that takes into account both long- and short-term influences on election outcomes. If the outcome is influenced mostly by long-term factors, like party identification, then we label it a “normal” election. On the other hand, if short-term forces like hot issues or charismatic candidate images intervene and disrupt long-term forces, a presidential-year contest can be classified as a “deviating” election. If these deviating forces are so earth-shaking that they permanently disrupt a long-term factor like partisanship, we classify this as a “realigning” election. It’s a simple but powerful and elegant way to sort elections based on voter choices.

Most of the emerging hype about this election focuses on matters unrelated to its eventual outcome. There’s no doubt that this election has its unique points. Wikipedia points out that the 2008 election cycle is the first “since 1928 in which there is neither an incumbent president nor an incumbent vice president running for their party’s nomination in the presidential election.” That’s different, and most interesting, but it doesn’t have anything to do with who wins or loses.

Advocates of information technology hail this as the first-ever election “truly of the new Internet millennium.” Internet evangelists burst into Broadway-like choruses of “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” and chant Zen-like dot-com-isms about connecting with voters. But does this have anything to do with the election outcome, or is it just an excuse to sell new software or Web-development consulting services?

Still others are focusing on the potential for a tidal wave of new youthful participants, a major development if it occurs.

And it’s undeniable that this election will feature the first-ever woman or black nominee. That’s also very significant in a historical sense. But, still, I am looking for evidence that something new is happening that will draw voters away from their long-term partisan outlook.

It can happen, of course. It probably happened in 2004 when concerns about national security and war in the Middle East prompted enough Lieberman Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to defect to Republican George W. Bush. The same could happen again, particularly if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee. He has John Kerry’s wind-surfer persona that will allow the presidential election to be blown off course.

But when it comes to congressional elections, there’s no reason to doubt that this may be the most normal election in a long while. The electorate doesn’t think of either party as being dominant in Congress, so even though most Americans disapprove of Congress’s performance and see it as a good-for-nothing, bickering society, it accrues to neither party’s advantage or disadvantage. There’ll be no incumbent president to vote against in the congressional elections, to send a message. So, without much at stake or any particular villains to ward off, people will just vote their long-term partisan leaning.

For some of my clients, this is welcome news. Consider Republican Pete Olson in Texas’s 22nd congressional district, Tom DeLay’s former haunt. Olson gets to challenge Democrat incumbent Nick Lampson in a district that, in recent years, has favored down-ballot Republicans by a solid 2-to-1 margin over Democrats. If voters cast a “normal” vote for Olson, Lampson is toast. He won’t have the ghost of DeLay to play mischief-maker, so I’m betting on normal this November.

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

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