12/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mandate Watch -- Bellwether Races/Initiatives To Watch Below the Presidential Contest

So how will we know the shape, size and depth of whatever mandate comes out of this, the most ideologically polarized election since 1980? Top-line numbers from the presidential contest are only going to give us a snapshot of what really happened. We're going to have to look at specific bellweather races and ballot initiatives to really know what happened at a structural level. Here are the bellweathers I'll be watching, beyond the state-by-state results in the presidential race:


- Proposition 8: Relegated to seemingly permanent minority status, Golden State conservatives are resorting to a social/cultural message with this anti-gay-marriage initiative. Its success or failure will either embolden or crush these kind of wedge tactics both in California and in similar blue states where conservatives are looking for a foothold.


- The Udall-Schaffer Senate race: This election will tell us if an aggressively pro-environment Democrat can win against a movement conservative in a state once considered off-limits for pro-environment Democrats.

- Amendment 46: Sponsored by the infamous Ward Connerly, this disgusting initiative aims to stoke the old Angry White Man backlash against minorities and women with a measure to essentially ban affirmative action and equal opportunity programs. The latest Denver Post poll suggests this is going to be a close one - if progressives defeat it, they will show that even here in the heart of the Mountain West, we can defeat race/gender-based wedge politics.

- Amendment 47: This is the anti-union right-to-work measure, aimed at destroying Colorado's labor movement. This state has a long history of anti-union politics - if right-to-work is defeated, it will signal that unions are starting to figure out how to fight off the worst anti-union measures in some of the most virulently anti-union states.


- African American Turnout: Will African American turnout be significantly higher in these southern states in 2008, and will that increased turnout be enough to swing both contested presidential and key down-ballot races blue? If yes, it will dent political scientist Tom Schaller's theory that progressive efforts to compete in the South are futile.


- Question 1: Massachusetts voters face a Grover Norquist-type ballot initiative to repeal its income tax. Though the Northeast has been dominated by Democrats in recent years, this initiative represents an attempt by conservatives to start moving their right-wing economic populism into blue-state strongholds. How this fares will suggest how similar initiatives and legislative bills fare in this Democratic region.


- State Senate: If Democrats take back the State Senate for the first time in almost 4 decades, they will have full control of the legislature that governs one of the largest and most financially powerful states in the nation. With that control comes the possibility of serious progressive policy reform.

- Working Families Party Turnout: As the New York Times recently reported, the Working Families Party has been building itself into a statewide force for the last decade, playing an integral role in trying to turn the New York legislature blue. If the state senate goes Democrat, and if the WFP receives an upswing of votes on its ballot line for Obama, it will boost this increasingly powerful party both in New York, and perhaps boost the fusion model for expansion into other states.


- The Smith-Merkley Senate Race: As I wrote in a newspaper column in October, the senate race between incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith (R) and challenger Jeff Merkley (D) provides arguably the starkest economic contrast on key issues like trade and globalization - and in a state where populist Democrats are supposedly unable to run on such issues. Should Merkley win with his anti-NAFTA, anti-Wall-Street-bailout campaign, it will prove that even in a state like Oregon with a significant export economy, Democrats can compete and win with a populist economic message.


- The Trauner-Lummis House Race: In 2006, Democrat Gary Trauner came within a few hundred votes of winning Dick Cheney's old House seat in not only the most Republican state in the nation, but a state acutely affected by many of the most pressing energy, environmental and infrastructural challenges. If he wins his 2008 race against State Treasurer Cynthia Lummis, it will indicate that progressives can compete on such previously difficult political and issue terrain.

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We all have our own lists of races we'll be watching, and mine is by no means a comprehensive list - but it does focus in on campaigns that pivot less on individual candidates (like, say, the Coleman-Franken race in Minnesota or the Markey-Musgrave race in Colorado) and more on ideology, issue themes and archetypes.

The outcomes of these races, combined with the presidential resuts, will give us a lot more detail about what kind of mandate - if any - comes out of the 2008 election. With that detail we will have a better idea of what comprises both majority policy that the nation is ready to embrace, as well as what good, election-winning politics looks like in the 21st century.