For the practicing political addict, even the best public opinion polls are no more than the functional equivalent of methadone. The real stuff is an election, where real live voters actually vote.
Some pollsters do seem infatuated with exotic sub-groups like "left-handed Presbyterians against the 55 m.p.h. speed limit and revenue-sharing." But politicians live by, and with, numbers. What counts after elections like Tuesday's are the numbers. The people who do most of the counting are those whose names will be on ballots -- or whose careers will be on the line -- two Novembers from now.
In polite company someplace, comparisons may still be odious. But in politics after elections, comparisons are inevitable and invited. Consider these few comparisons between the 1980 and 1982 returns and what impact they might have on surviving members of the House and Senate.
Thirty-three states elected United States senators in 1982. Of those 33 states, Ronald Reagan carried 29 when he ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980. Of the votes cast in those states in 1980, Reagan won 56 percent. Fifty-six percent is a landslide, which can sometimes be turned into a mandate.
In those same 33 states in 1982, Democratic Senate candidates won in at least 20. What is more, those 33 Democratic Senate candidates won 57 percent of the total popular vote Tuesday. In two-thirds of the states, 1982 Democrats ran ahead of Ronald Reagan's 1980 record.
Nor was that overall Democratic percentage simply inflated by a couple of one-sided victories in large states. True, New York Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan's historic sweep did raise the average. But 13 Democratic senators this week won more than 60 percent of the vote in their states. By contrast, only four Republican Senate candidates won more than 54 percent of their state's vote.
To show what a good year it was for Senate Democrats (or, maybe, a not-so-good year for presidential candidates): Edward Kennedy's 61 percent of the vote in Massachusetts was only the 12th highest percentage of any Senate Democrat this year. In those 33 states, in the matter of political coattails, Reagan was wearing an Eisenhower jacket.
In the House, as a result of the elections, 18 state delegations will have fewer Republican members next January than they have today. Those missing Republicans will be mourned by the White House and studied and analyzed by surviving Republicans on Capitol Hill who would prefer not to follow their example in 1984.
The 1982 election was not so much a Democratic victory as it was a Republican defeat. The Democrats are not without ideas, something you would not have learned necessarily from viewing the just-completed campaign. The Democrats preferred simply to play the hand that the Republicans had ineptly dealt them -- and who would blame them? Unemployment and Social Security, as political issues, work for the Democrats and against the Republicans, whose White House had made them the centerpiece of the nation's political debate.
But the winning 1982 Democatic campaign was without any real public agenda or vision of the nation's future. The question remains whether Ronald Reagan now understands, as pollster Peter Hart puts it, that unemployment is a lot more than a lagging economic indicator, and whether the Democrats understand that what worked in 1982 -- being the other, more compassionate guy -- won't be enough in 1984. Or between now and then, either.