-- Rep. Jay Inslee knows about political tidal waves, because one of them almost sank his political career.
Inslee, who now represents a suburban Seattle district, was tossed out of Congress from another district in the 1994 Republican sweep. "When you see a tidal wave go over your head about 35 feet high," Inslee says, "you notice it."
But he came back to the House in 1998, and now what he's seeing "is the same tidal wave moving in the opposite direction. . . . There's a passion out there." And the passion, Inslee says, is running against George W. Bush.
True, party loyalists often see what they want to see. A passionate minority can still remain a minority and lose an election. But having spent much of the past three weeks on the road, visiting eight cities in the Northeast, the Midwest, the South and the West Coast, I sense the same passion Inslee does on the anti-Bush side.
Even if the plural of anecdote is not data, the anecdotes are about citizens who avoided politics for years but are now devoting time to John Kerry's campaign out of hostility to Bush. Individuals who never before made a campaign contribution are opening their checkbooks to Kerry and the Democrats. (This is more than anecdotal; it's reflected in Kerry's record fundraising.) And, perhaps most significant, moderate and moderately conservative Republicans are showing little enthusiasm for Bush, reflecting their worries about his Iraq policy and their qualms over large deficits.
"I've never seen a time with so many Republicans expressing consternation about their party and a willingness to support the other party," said Rep. Brian Baird, a Democrat whose district, in Washington's southwest corner, went for Bush four years ago.
Baird, a psychologist who has worked with statistics, is also skeptical of making too much of anecdotes. But he is running across plenty of them on the anti-Bush side. "If you contrast this campaign to the campaign of four years ago, you saw George Bush stickers everywhere and very few Al Gore stickers," he said. "Now, it's at least 50-50" between Bush and Kerry. Baird speaks of a man in a health club wearing a John Kerry T-shirt who told him: "What you have to understand is that I am a lifelong Republican." And the congressman chuckles over a car he spotted that "had an American flag, an 'I'm the NRA' bumper sticker and a John Kerry bumper sticker."
Inslee's metaphor of the 1994 Republican sweep piloted by former House speaker Newt Gingrich is intriguing because the Republican wave was not obvious in the polls at this moment in the campaign 10 years ago. A survey in mid-June 1994 by Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin, for example, found the Democrats with a three-point lead in the House races.
Yet many Republicans correctly argued that intense voter dissatisfaction with Congress, Bill Clinton and the status quo was moving the country decisively in the GOP's direction. Republicans then sensed that the energy on the Republican side could swamp Democrats by producing a turnout heavily tilted toward Republican candidates -- exactly what happened. Democrats feel a comparable energy could work for them this year.
Finally, new conservative media, particularly Rush Limbaugh and his imitators along the AM radio dial, came into their own in 1994. A decade later, the new media growth is in a chorus of left-of-center Web sites and, of course, Michael Moore, whose "Fahrenheit 9/11" became the highest-grossing documentary of all time over the weekend. Moore bids to become the Democrats' answer to Limbaugh.
Some pundit's handbook no doubt warns prognosticators to attach caveats to all predictions. So, yes, how this election turns out will depend a great deal on how the situation in Iraq looks to voters on Election Day, and how many middle-class and blue-collar voters feel the economic recovery in their own lives by then.
But there is one last bit of evidence suggesting that Inslee and Baird are on to something. In late August 2002, at the beginning of the buildup to the Iraq war, a Pew Research Center poll found that only 37 percent of Americans felt Bush had laid out a case for military action; 52 percent felt he had not.
In other words, millions of middle-of-the-road Americans had doubts about the war before it started. Many of those doubters eventually went along with the president but now question the war and the way the administration handled it. If Inslee is right about his tidal wave, the doubters will give it its power.