There are three reasons to be glad Election Day is almost here: First, it will be safe to turn on the TV again. No more scary, sleazy campaign commercials. Second, we'll find out who's going to be running the government for the next few years. We may not like the answers, but for now it will be good just to know who is supposed to go to work on the many challenges this country faces.
But the real reward -- at least for those of us who love politics -- is what we may learn about this country of ours. Every election is a portrait of the nation and its people, and it will be even more fascinating than usual to see what patterns emerge from the returns this year.
In the countless phone calls I've made to politicians, pollsters, friends and acquaintances around the country this past week, I've been struck by one thing. Almost all of them assume that the results will conform very closely to those of the 2000 election.
Not that they are all predicting another narrow George Bush victory. As many or more of them guess it will be John Kerry. But they think that probably all but four or five states will be found on the same side of the presidential ledger as last time. And they expect those states and their congressional districts, with few exceptions, to return to Congress the same senators and representatives who sit there now -- or, in a few cases, legislators of the same party as the retiring members.
These presumably knowledgeable politicians see almost no chance of a political upheaval -- nothing like 1980, when Republicans ousted the Democrats from the White House and the Senate and, with the help of Democratic defectors, took working control of the House of Representatives as well. Nothing like 1992, when the first President Bush saw his Republican Party left without a single power base in Washington.
If that general assumption by political insiders proves to be correct, it will tell us something important about this country. It will measure the strength -- some would say inflexibility -- of our political structures: the durability of state and local political cultures; the allegiance the two historical parties command from their adherents; the advantage of incumbency. Those things, the insiders believe, will prevail, even though the circumstances of this election could hardly be more different from those of four years ago.
Then, the country was at peace. No major security threat was on the horizon. The economy had been booming for years. And the federal government was in the happy position of deciding how to allocate growing budget surpluses.
Today, with enduring memories of Sept. 11, the threat of terrorism hangs over everything. Casualties and violence dominate the news from the unfinished war in Iraq. The economy struggles to cope with runaway oil prices and the rise of new competitive threats in China and India. And the budget sags under record deficits, with untold consequences for the future of Social Security and Medicare, the two government programs on which elderly Americans rely.
Logic would suggest that the incumbent (Democratic) administration's candidates for president and Congress should have been easily elected under the circumstances of 2000, while the dominant Republicans could be very vulnerable to conditions today.
But that does not account for either the emotional or the inertial forces that shape politics. At the personal level, it was clear in 2000 that more Americans liked Bush than his opponent, Al Gore. The same is true in Bush vs. Kerry, reinforced this time by the powerful emotional bond formed between millions of citizens and their president in those scary days after the terrorists struck New York and Washington.
As for the inertial forces, just look at the election map from 2000 and note how closely it resembles the projected lineup in most forecasts for next week. Maybe New Hampshire will join the rest of the Northeast in voting Democratic; it was the lone holdout for Bush last time. Maybe New Mexico will tip to the GOP (it wouldn't take much to overcome a 366-vote margin) and align itself with the rest of the Rocky Mountain West. Once again, the Middle West could split its votes down the middle.
In this sense at least, the betting is that the country is truly conservative. Everything changes, the insiders say, except the votes.
We'll soon see if the experts are right.