As connoisseurs of presidential primaries know well, New Hampshire voters are notoriously contrarian – mischievously rewriting the media's story line by voting for Hillary Clinton (2008), John McCain (in a 2000 landslide), Pat Buchanan (1996) and Gary Hart (1984). Cosseted by the candidates and pampered by the pundits, these first-in-the-nation primary voters rebel against being taken for granted and revel in proving the dumbness of the conventional wisdom.
All this is prelude to an against-the-grain notion: Is 2010 the year in which all American voters become New Hampshirites?
Never has there been an off-year election with such a perplex of polls, such in-depth public debates over polling methodology, such over-hyped political projection systems and such pseudo-certainty in early October about the outcome. From the proliferation of inside-baseball political Web sites to the ravenous (and sometimes rabid) appetite for political news on cable TV, we have created a nation of armchair campaign consultants.
The expectation of a GOP tidal wave is so engrained in the media and politically sophisticated voters that it is easy to imagine the morning-after headlines: "In Stunning Rebuff to Republicans, GOP Only Picks Up 93 House Seats." Many members of the punditocracy have already moved beyond the election itself to game plan Barack Obama's next two years grappling with a Republican House and possibly a GOP Senate.
To be sure, the political press pack has always lived in the future tense — crafting campaign narratives and then growing bored with their own creations before anyone actually votes. But this time around, tuned-in voters (those certain to turn out on Nov. 2) are equally caught up in the advance script for Election Day. What if some of these voters impetuously decide to rewrite their lines without telling the pollsters?
Not since 1982 (a bygone media world that revolved around Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw) has the nation voted for Congress in such a dismal economic funk. That sad-eyed reality (and, remember, neither party has advanced a credible program to bring back the jobs) should add an undertone of unpredictability to next month's elections. Also, we live in an era when candidates can vault from fringe primary contenders to national celebrities in three weeks. Christine ("I am not a witch") O'Donnell is probably more famous now than Joe Biden was in 2008 when he was tapped for the vice presidency after holding Delaware's Senate seat for 35 years.
My goal is not to play partisan Pangloss and claim that this is "the best of all possible worlds" for the Democrats. Almost all current signs, of course, point to a Republican sweep in November. Despite the sad prevalence of conspiracy theories about the media, I want to stress that no reporter deliberately sets out to be wrong as part of a bizarre plot to bamboozle the voters. I am old enough to remember the reality-denying pamphlet that appeared in college-town bookstores in October 1972 entitled, "How the Polls Were Wrong and George McGovern Was Elected President." It is embarrassing enough that Dick Morris published this 2005 political classic of wrong-way prediction: "Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race."
But for all the glib talk about the next great political tsunami coming in November, it is worth remembering that until recently the House was the embodiment of incumbent-protection win-reelection politics. The 1994 Gingrich Revolution — undeniably an epic wave election — ousted the Democrats from control of the House after a stunning four decades. But every off-year election since then has defied historical patterns. In both 1998 and 2002, the incumbent president unexpectedly gained House seats because of unusual events (Clinton's impeachment and the 9/11 attacks). The 2006 Democratic takeover was a seismic event of far greater magnitude on the political Richter scale than most anticipated after George W. Bush's 2004 victory.
Not too long ago campaign reporters were stripped of their press tags if they did not invoke Tip O'Neill's mantra ("All politics is local") in at least half their stories. Now the dominant orthodoxy is that all politics is national. But one of the biggest questions to be tested in November is whether candidate quality matters in individual races — or whether the adroit and clueless alike get carried off to Congress by the same national wave.
On paper, for example, 76-year-old Leonard Boswell, representing central Iowa, should be a walking definition of a vulnerable House Democrat since he never has won with more than 56 percent of the vote during this century. But Brad Zaun, Boswell's ultra-conservative GOP opponent, is struggling to raise money. And in a telling assessment of Zaun's chances, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is running ads in nearly 50 House districts, but is not on the air against Boswell, even though Des Moines TV time is inexpensive.
Washington political consultants are not (shocking revelation ahead) all-knowing. Every year party committees invest heavily in losing races and stiff-arm candidates who prove victorious. (New Hampshire House Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, for example, won in 2006 despite Rahm Emanuel's refusal to assist in her race). So the NRCC's current decision to downplay the Boswell race may not prevent the GOP from picking up the seat. But it does serve as a small illustration of the complicated calculus in handicapping the roughly 100 House and Senate seats in play this November.
This is a strange year — and it is possible that both parties (plus the press pack) are all flying blind. In my off-the-record conversations as a reporter, I have talked with Republicans who are more subdued in projecting GOP gains in November than their Democratic counterparts. Sometimes, in fact, I wonder if the private predictions of political insiders say more about their personal bio-rhythms than any secret knowledge.
So as the campaign days dwindle down to a precious few, it would be wise to remember how cantankerous voters can be – and never assume that polls and prognosticators have taken all the surprise out of politics.