Juan Williams: The Forrest Gump midterms

Call me Forrest Gump — the fictional character who lived through so many changes in history — but after more than 30 years of covering national politics, it once again feels to me that basic strategy for winning elections is being tossed in the air by this year’s midterms.

In the 70s and 80s, the key to victory was winning swing voters via better advertising and campaigning.

In the 90s and 00s, as politics became more partisan, the winning strategy changed, becoming a matter of maximizing turnout among your party’s political base.

Now political thinkers are asking: What if voter turnout doesn’t matter?


That is the theory of Harry Enten, a blogger for the FiveThirtyEight.com website. He wrote earlier this year that “the reason Republicans won more votes in 2010 – and likely will in 2014 – is that voters wanted Republicans in office, not that minorities and young people didn’t turn out to vote.” 

Other academic studies have similarly questioned the conventional wisdom about the power of voter turnout. They point out that young people being pushed to the polls have weak party affiliation. The newcomers often just want to shake up the political status quo by voting against anyone in power, especially the incumbent president and his party. 

Last week a Harvard Institute of Politics poll of millennial voters reported that a majority, 51 percent, of this year’s likely young voters said they would prefer a Republican-majority Congress. In 2010, 55 percent of millennial voters preferred to have Democrats lead Congress. Even with young people backing Democrats, the GOP won big in the 2010 midterms.

If the Harvard poll is right, it really upsets the Democrats’ apple-cart. The Democrats need those votes from young people to have any chance.

Here is another game changer in this year’s election. For the first time voters are telling pollsters they are willing to vote against their own member of Congress to show their overall disgust with Washington politics.

Obviously, that is bad news for incumbents of both parties. But has American politics really changed so radically? History is clear. The people who lose in midterms belong to the president’s party. Only three times since 1842 has the party holding the White House gained seats in a midterm election.  

Another shocking change in today’s politics is the failure of so many polls. There are more polls than ever. But even great polling organizations are getting it wrong. That is what happened to Gallup’s prediction of a GOP victory in the 2012 presidential race.

Current polling points to a GOP advantage in this year’s midterms. But last week the New York Times blog, The Upshot, reported that this year’s polls have likely undercounted Democratic votes because their voter samples are based on 2010 Census numbers. That means the current polls are “typically weighted to reflect the slightly whiter America of a few years ago, rather than the America of today,” according to the Times.

If that is true, then critical Senate races where polls show Republicans holding a lead of less than 5 percentage points — states such as Arkansas and Colorado, for example — may actually have Democrats in the lead. 

Also consider another crazy development: In Georgia this year, Democrats have registered a surprising 250,000 new voters. That kind of increase is previously unheard-of in a midterm election.

Here is yet another change for people who follow politics:

Polls are showing vastly different results when all “registered voters” are sampled versus the result from “likely voters.” In this year’s contests those “likely voters” are older, white, more affluent and Republican. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found 77 percent of Republicans say they will definitely vote this year compared to 63 percent of Democrats who say they are “certain” to vote. As a result, polls of likely voters skew in favor of Republican candidates.

But who is a likely voter these days?

Black voters turned out in record numbers in 2012, their turnout rate in percentage terms surpassing that of white voters for the first time. That means there are black voters available to Democrats in this cycle if the party is able to get them to the polls. The same is true with Latino voters. 

The question is whether continued high minority-voter support for President Obama transcends the pattern of declining minority turnout in midterm elections. Early voting indicates an increase in black turnout.

Another surprising change in politics in my lifetime is the persistence of a gender gap. National Journal reported earlier this month the gender gap in senatorial and gubernatorial races is at 20 percent this year, higher than the 13-point average since ’04, and reaching “historic proportions across 2014’s battleground states.”

Given the GOP advantage in the large number of red states in play in this year’s Senate races, the real surprise of this midterm season is the apparent absence of a GOP wave. That could be tied to one final, confusing factor — the absence of a defining issue in this year’s races.

That is why this election is going to be remembered by all of us Forrest Gump types following politics according to Gump’s maxim that life is a box of chocolates – you never know what you’ll get. 

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.