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Robert J. Elisberg

Robert J. Elisberg

Posted: February 21, 2008 01:14 PM

The Critical Factor That Polls Don't Consider


With the Super Tuesday and subsequent primary results in, analysts and pundits are in their Election Heaven, explaining away percentages of what exit polls are telling us. Is John McCain getting a higher percentage of religious right-wing support than people would otherwise assume, and will this spell trouble for Democrats? Is Hillary Clinton getting a smaller percentage of male voters as Barack Obama, and will this spell trouble for Democrats? Will...

Hold on. One larger reality is at play here that doesn't require parsing. It's really basic.

Democratic vote totals are swamping that of Republicans.

We don't elect anyone by percentage, of course. It's that pesky, actual vote total that is really important. John McCain (or whoever is left standing in the GOP) can get 100% of the evangelical vote - but if only a handful are voting, it doesn't matter.

Democrats are incredibly motivated this year, furious at eight years of Republican desecration of America, the Constitution and human values. Moreover, it's not just lifelong Democrats, but the ocean of news ones: voters have been rushing away from the Republican Party in droves. According to Pew Research, six years ago party affiliation was split between Democrats and Republicans almost exactly 50-50; today however 50% of the public is affiliated with the Democratic Party while just 35% considers themselves Republican.

On a graph chart, that's the equivalent of falling off the edge. This is a serious problem for Republicans. (For the sake of discussion, "serious" will be defined as "fatal.")

Remember, in Iowa -- a red state -- there was a massive turnout for Democrats, who almost doubled the Republican caucus turnout. In South Carolina -- a red state -- Barack Obama's vote total by itself equaled the entire Republican primary vote. In Florida (yet another red state), more people voted Democratic than Republican, even the primary didn't even count for Democrats.

And these are the states where Republicans are supposed to do well. Must do well.

On Super Tuesday, 14 million Democrats voted, and just 10 million Republicans.

And yet pundits keep tossing around percentages.

Keep in mind further, of course, that we don't have a clue why people are voting as they are, which is generally helpful when understanding percentages. In Florida, for instance, where John McCain did surprisingly better than expected among far-right religious voters in the Republican primary -- that might be less because they liked John McCain (who they actually hate with a red-hot passion), and more because in their gut-twisting intolerance they go apoplectic in their even-greater hatred of a Mormon. Alas, the problem is if John McCain wins the nomination that means that their scary Mormon won't be on the November ballot, and thus those same intolerant voters would unlikely be motivated enough to vote for anyone who's not a Bible-thumping Elmer Gantry.

A similar reality faces the Republican lip-smacking (albeit dwindling) hope of running against Hillary Clinton.

Without question, Hillary Clinton is a lightning rod, someone who horrifies Republicans and is therefore the biggest risk the Democrats have.

If her opponent is John McCain, however, there's no guarantee the right-wing zealots will go out to vote for someone they hate against someone they hate. It's just as likely their heads will explode, and they'll stay home in misery, reading about the Apocalypse. They certainly would come out to vote for Mike Huckabee -- unfortunately no one else will. (As for Ron Paul, maybe he'll get the Mike Gravel vote.)

Ultimately, just running against someone you hate with widespread head-twisting wrath is no recipe for victory. You see, to win an election, it doesn't matter how much people hate you, it only matters that you get one more vote than the other person.

Probably no one was more hated in recent years than George Bush in 2004, and Democrats were intensely motivated to vote him out -- and he still won. The most hated man in 20th century politics was probably Richard Nixon, and even he won re-election -- in a landslide! It doesn't matter how much people hate you. It matters how much you can get out the vote of people who support you. And thus far, Democrats are pouring out in oceans compared to Republicans.

And that's if it's the "Most Hated Person to Republicans" who the GOP runs against. If instead it's Barack Obama who Democrats nominate, then even that one last-gasping fantasy hope would be gone. John McCain's one hope relies on, prays on, getting nearly all the Independent voters. Kiss that hope goodbye against Obama.

And none of this takes into consideration the swarm of Democratic voters in Senate or House races, where Republican candidates are regularly dropping out like hippies or running for cover. Even the cheeriest GOP pundit expects a Democratic landslide in Congress. This might be the first election ever with reverse coattails, where the bottom of the ticket carries the top along on a tsunami wave. Ultimately, with fewer candidates for Republicans to happily support in local races, with a presidential candidate at the top the far-right despises, you might need the world's biggest lever to wrench morose conservatives from their darkened home bunkers on Election Day.

Much can happen between now and November. Yet one thing is clear:

This year, Swift Boats will not be enough. This year, the Republican Party will likely need lifeboats.