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This time, tea leaves won't help

As the final debates of the 2006 political campaign move toward hysteria, it is still impossible to read enough tea leaves to predict the outcome of the election at the national or state level. The traditional tools for forecasting have been rend...

As the final debates of the 2006 political campaign move toward hysteria, it is still impossible to read enough tea leaves to predict the outcome of the election at the national or state level. The traditional tools for forecasting have been rendered useless, including public opinion polling.

History is no longer a predictor. At one time, it was possible to predict that the party holding the presidency would lose offices all up and down the ballot. Over the past 30 years, however, the occupant of the White House has become less of a factor in the off-year elections.

In the four off-year elections encompassing 1974-1986, the party of the president in North Dakota lost a total of 60 seats in the House of Representatives and 23 in the Senate. In the period of 1990-2002, these losses had diminished to 20 in the House and 12 in the Senate, a definite sign of the decline of the significance of the party holding the White House.

Primaries have also become unreliable. When strong congressional candidates have been on the ballot in the North Dakota primaries, Democrats have actually received more votes than Republicans - something that never happened 30 and 40 years ago. However, these strong showings have always melted away by November and normal Republican dominance reappeared.

This happened again in the 2006 primary when Sen. Kent Conrad,

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D-N.D., and Congressman Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., demonstrated impressive political strength against the unknown Republican candidates. Their strong showing gave many of the other Democratic state and legislative candidates impressive leads over Republicans. Democratic candidates have seldom been able to parlay these primary majorities into November victories.

Most prognosticators expect that there will be a shift of Republican strength to Democratic candidates in this election. A 5 percent shift would be a virtual tsunami around the country but in North Dakota would impact only a handful of legislative seats. Based on the 2002 general election results for the legislative districts up for election this year, we find that a 5 percent shift would give the Democrats only three Senate seats and four House seats.

The small number of competitive districts is due to gerrymandering by the legislature .The average margin for victory for all Senate candidates in 2002 was over 18 percent. In the house races, the average margin was 14 percent. This means that North Dakota legislative races have become quite lopsided for both parties, providing safe seats for almost all incumbents.

The impact of early voting by absentee ballot has become an unknown. Thirty states now provide for "no-excuse" absentee voting. In Montana, absentee ballots were mailed on Sept. 22. Some 40 percent of the voters in Florida will cast absentee ballots. In Oregon, all voters cast their ballots by mail. In North Dakota, many "snowbirds" vote before they head for Arizona.

Widespread use of absentee ballots means that many people will be voting before the final bell is rung. Opinion-changing events will be meaningless for these early voters. In this election, many absentee ballots have been cast just as Republican fortunes hit bottom. This could easily change in the next few days.

Without even considering the impact of blogs and the Internet, there are enough variables in this election year to muddle any rational prognosticating. The only safe course is to rely on one's own bag of tea leaves.

Omdahl is former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher.

E-mail lloyd_omdahl@und.nodak.edu

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