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Puncturing three myths

Sometimes evidence explodes myths. Consider these three, oft repeated in the days leading up to this election, but dramatically undercut by its results.

Sometimes evidence explodes myths. Consider these three, oft repeated in the days leading up to this election, but dramatically undercut by its results.

First is the myth that in an era of polarization, there are no swing voters. Stability on the surface hid churning beneath, creating the illusion of voters frozen in place. Analysts looked at the three elections from 2000 through 2004 and saw the Democratic and Republican shares of the national House vote varying by less than two points. Al Gore’s vote in 2000 was six-tenths of a point greater than the Kerry vote in 2004, while the Bush vote rose by just two points. Precious few swings, it appeared.

However, inferring what happens among individual voters from aggregate data is a well-known statistical fallacy. In fact, the University of Michigan panel study confirms that between the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, some 15 percent of the electorate shifted allegiance from one party’s candidate to the other — a large pool of actual swing voters, ignored by commentators.

This time, however, the evidence was unmistakable. Though the independent vote divided rather evenly for several cycles, this year witnessed a massive shift to the Democrats. In 2000, Al Gore lost independents by two points, while John Kerry won them by one point. House Democrats had a narrow three-point advantage among independents in 2004. But this year, that ballooned into an 18-point margin — an unmistakable sign of movement.

A second bit of cant is the “contract myth” — the argument that to win in 2006, Democrats needed concrete plans to deal with everything from Iraq to healthcare, or at least a version of the GOP’s Contract with America. To be sure, Democrats needed an answer to incessant questions about their agenda — and they had one. However, Democrats won despite presenting neither a detailed set of policy prescriptions, nor their own version of the contract.

In fact, few voters had heard of the Republican contract in 1994 and even fewer were familiar with the details of the Democratic agenda this time around. Those who argued that elections are always about the future, that voters needed policies they could vote for, were simply incorrect. This is neither cause for celebration nor a source of national pride. It is simply a fact. This election was a referendum on Republican rule.

As I argued previously, Democrats in fact had more of an agenda at home and abroad than did Republicans. As with the Contract with America, though, it never broke through. Most voters said we had no plan for Iraq and no plan for domestic problems, but voted for our candidates because they disliked what Republicans had wrought.

Finally, this election exploded the myth that Democrats should not talk about foreign policy. One of the conflicts within the Kerry campaign concerned the extent to which Iraq should be central to the message. Some strongly counseled an exclusive focus on domestic issues. Others of us saw Bush’s political fortunes tightly bound up with voters’ attitudes toward Iraq and believed the more we could create a sense that Iraq was a “mess,” the better Kerry would do.

By 2006, everyone jumped on the Iraq bandwagon — not necessarily advocating a plan, because here voters remain divided. Exit polls indicate that only 29 percent want a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and other data reveals even fewer want an immediate withdrawal. Nevertheless, most voters regarded Bush’s Iraq policy a failure and focusing on that failure increased support for Democrats — precisely because the election was a referendum. See Myth 2.

While facts puncture some myths, others persist, untouched by reality. We will see what becomes of these three.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

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