A lot of people are looking at close polls in the presidential horse race, and generic congressional preference and predicting a return to the almost evenly divided red state-blue state nation that characterized the 2000 and 2004 elections. This may well prove true, but most elections, including the most recent even numbered years 2008 and 2010, have been wave elections with more decisive outcomes. And most of the time, the forces that move swing voters to line up behind one of the sides are not nearly as obvious six months before the vote as they are after the victory party for one side and the lights go out for the other.
In the next six months we are likely to see history making events that challenge and change our assumptions. This is true of most six month periods. Elections make history, and elections are swayed by history being made. Most history making events arrive as surprises.
For an example we need look no further back than the last presidential election in 2008. Barack Obama won the Montana Primary on the First Tuesday in June 2008 to secure the nomination. June started with the Real Clear Politics average of polls pitting Obama against John McCain indicating a closer race (Obama +0.7%) than the margin now separating Obama and Mitt Romney (Obama +2.0% as of this posting).
In June of 2008 John McCain did not think he would need to formulate any new economic policies before the election, but in 2008 the global economy fell over a cliff and dramatic measures were needed to avoid a complete collapse of financial markets and global depression. As the crisis became manifest in September, McCain looked like a trapped animal and Obama was able to capitalize on the changed circumstance to secure a victory that had pundits declaring the dawning of a period of durable Democratic supremacy -- until the dramatic reversal of fortunes in the next election.
A Major Wave Is More Likely Than a Deadlock
Last December we presented four bold potential scenarios for the U.S. elections in November 2012 (that together add up to nothing really all that bold because they cover nearly every possible outcome). At that point, each of the scenarios seemed about equally likely, and even through ebbs and flows of evidence supporting each scenario over the intervening months, the scenarios still seem about equally likely today.
Scenario 1: A Republican wave sweeping out Democrats because President Barack Obama and the Democrats were elected in 2008 to fix the economy and the economy is likely to still stink four full years later on Election Day 2012.
Scenario 2: A Democratic wave sweeping out Republicans who find themselves too closely associated with the wealthiest "1%" and large corporations and on the wrong side of a class war in an election year.
Scenario 3: An anti-incumbent, or more precisely anti-politician, wave sweeping out office holders of both parties in favor of new faces in an effort to fix the broken political system in Washington.
Scenario 4: The waves cancel each other out. Different cross pressures in different regions leave voters without a clear voice and leave the nation without any new direction.
When economic data seemed strong at the start of the year, the Democratic sweep (Scenario 2) seemed to be taking hold, then rising gas prices helped cool off the second quarter (for the third year in a row) and a Democratic debacle (Scenario 1) started to seem more plausible. Now gas prices are heading lower again, and the Republicans have stopped suggesting politicians can control commodity prices. Beneath the surface of the close presidential horse race, polls are telling us voters are as exacerbated with the broken economic and political systems as at any other time since Watergate -- and some high profile incumbent primary defeats lend credibility to the belief that voters will throw the bums from both parties out (Scenario 3).
The recent evidence supporting Scenarios 1, 2 and 3 also serve to lend credibility to Scenario 4 where all these forces cancel out, but still there are three scenarios that would constitute a decisive public choice, and only one that would be what Las Vegas odds makers would call a "push" where neither side can be said to have won or lost.
This admittedly simplistic analysis helps explain why some people are pessimistic about President Obama's chances as two scenarios lead to his defeat (Scenarios 1 and 3), and only one Scenario clearly supports his re-election (Scenario 2) and the other would be a close contest (Scenario 4). House Republicans face similar odds as two Scenarios (2 and 3) - would send them packing. Whether voters toss out the GOP (Scenario 2) or all incumbents (Scenario 3) they'd still be sending a clear message against obstructionism.
Note that even if we do not know who will come out on top and who will get crushed, three out of the four options would be fairly decisive. We continue to claim no crystal ball intelligence to say whether the map will be painted red or blue on election night, or whether we will be heading for another recount to determine the winner, but this does not mean we can project the current horse race tie forward for several months.
If there is a wave forming, it is likely that all the signs are visible but little noticed right now, and will be further obscured by Romney selecting a running mate, and the reaction that follows, surges for both parties around their conventions, debate performances and gaffs, and outrageous attack ads. Bigger forces than these may be moving beneath the surface, and may be obvious looking backwards -- or the election may be defined by the world shaking events that arrive without warning.
With history of past elections as a guide, it is prudent to always expect something quite unexpected.