Inside Politics: 2012 is beginning to look a lot like 2004

A nation divided, a state waiting to know who will be its new governor: Haven't we been through this already?
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Gov. Chris Gregoire, left, and GOP challenger Dino Rossi endured close races in 2008 and, especially, 2004. (KOMO-TV)

A nation divided, a state waiting to know who will be its new governor: Haven't we been through this already?

As a veteran of the Rossi recount drama I hate to say this, but with two weeks to go this election looks like 2004 redux. The governor’s race is dead even, and the electoral college map looks almost identical to the Bush v Kerry race in 2004. It could all come down to a few votes in Ohio. In the really big picture there is one thing we already know: Barack Obama has, so far at least, failed to realign American politics and we are back to a 49-49 nation.

Here’s where we stand two weeks out. Neither Mitt Romney, nor Barack Obama, “won” the second debate in any meaningful way. The national tracking polls and state polls in battleground states have not shown significant movement since the second debate.

Romney has perhaps pulled ahead in the southern battleground states, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, and maybe Virginia. The president, however, appears to be holding on to small leads in the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and, most importantly, Ohio.  The map right now looks a lot like the map of the 2004 election

In 2004, if John Kerry had won Ohio he would’ve been president. If the election were today, it seems Ohioans would once again choose the president.

I use words like “perhaps,” “appears,” and “seems” purposefully, because the polls in the battleground states are virtually all within the margin of error. Polling is accurate, but imprecise. All we know for certain about any contest that is within the margin of error two weeks out is that it is too close to call. There is a lot of gnashing of teeth right now on the Internet about which polls are accurate. Who do you believe, Gallup or Nate Silver? It doesn’t matter. Too many “analysts” are over-analyzing the current situation. The election is very close and a few undecided voters in a few states will decide the race. That is all anyone can say for certain. The final polls, taken the weekend before the election, may, or may not, be predictive.

One thing does seem clear; this will not be a landslide for either party. In 2008, Democrats enjoyed a 10 percent advantage in generic ballot test polling (asking, “if the election were heId today, would you vote for a Republican or Democrat for Congress?”). In 2010 it was the GOP that enjoyed a 10 percent advantage. Today the generic ballot test shows a 1 percent lead for the Democrats, and it appears that Republicans will continue to have a majority in the U.S. House, while the D's will hold onto the Senate. We are again a nation in political stasis, evenly divided between the two parties.

Here at home, Sen. Maria Cantwell is cruising to re-election; the race for attorney general appears very close; Republicans are battling to gain more seats in the legislature; and Republican John Koster and Democrat Suzan Del Bene in the 1st Congressional District are engaged in the only interesting race for Congress. Many people are passionately interested in the various initiatives on the ballot.  But the big players, and the big money, are focused on one race only: Who will be our next governor?

This past week, three polls were released. All showed Democrat Jay Inslee with a lead of between 1 percent and 3 percent, well within the margin of error. All these polls were conducted a week or so ago. In fact, the UW’s Washington poll includes interviews conducted before the first Romney v Obama debate. Polls are accurate only on the day they are taken, which is why campaigns engage in nightly tracking polls. Late this week, Republican tracking polls showed McKenna with a very slight lead.

The key factor in the race for governor are the undecideds. Roughly 10 percent of the voters are still undecided, far more than in the presidential race. Both the Washington Poll and the SurveyUSA poll showed McKenna with a 7 percent lead among independents, and far more independents are undecided than are Republicans or Democrats. If this trend holds, McKenna should benefit from late-deciding independents. Perhaps the final polls will predict a winner. Or maybe we will have to wait a while before knowing the name of our new governor. Again.

Among all this uncertainty, one conclusion is clear: Barack Obama has failed to bring “change,” at least politically. Obama won a huge victory for the Democrats in 2008. His party controlled both houses of Congress. He won states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Indiana that George W. Bush had won. He was a transcendent figure who appeared capable of uniting America and getting big things done. But it all changed very quickly.

By the fall of 2009 the polls had changed. The GOP won a smashing victory in 2010. And now, if Obama is re-elected it will be by a margin so narrow it will be hard to claim a mandate. The same is true of Romney.  Congress will remain divided. Gridlock is likely to endure no matter who wins the White House.

The race for governor will determine whether or not Washington goes down a new path. But sadly, the path may already be set in the other Washington.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.