It's one thing to be optimistic about Democratic chances on November 7. It's quite another to convince ourselves of certain victory - tempting as it is. So with less than two weeks until Election Day, consider this: If we assume that good vibes and poll numbers will result in good turnout, we'll lose.
The signs of October overconfidence are everywhere, particularly when predicting control of the House of Representatives. In Sunday's New York Times, former Iowa Democratic State Party Chair Gordon R. Fischer said he had "moved from optimistic to giddy" about the party's prospects on November 7. Sunday's 60 Minutes practically handed Nancy Pelosi the Speaker's gavel. And behind-the-scenes jockeying for committee chairmanships has already begun.
Sure, we have plenty of reasons for optimism. In recent weeks, independent analysts have suggested that more and more Republican seats are now in play, expanding the field at a time when it is usually narrowing. The Iraq War, stagnant wages and the multiple ethics investigations have exposed the GOP as corrupt and dangerously inept. And then there's the depressing effect the Mark Foley scandal may have on the GOP base.
But those who believe these political pratfalls will translate into Democratic gains should remember that in three of the last four federal elections, the party expected to win big but lost huge. In 1998, analysts predicted that the Lewinsky scandal would net Newt and the GOP up to 30 House seats; the Democrats won five.
In 2000, exit polls showed Al Gore winning Florida and, with it, the presidency. And in 2004, many pundits confidently predicted a Kerry victory. Exit polls bore out their predictions all the way through election evening, with even Karl Rove reportedly offering a dire assessment of his boss's chances. Fast forward to midnight, and Democratic jubilation had evaporated into downright dejection.
History aside, there are more practical reasons to be wary of overconfidence. First, the GOP has gobs more money than we do. Last Friday alone, the NRCC dumped $8.5 million into close House races across the country, most of it for negative ads. And though the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and progressive organizations are committing record amounts (of troops and money), we simply cannot match Republican spending.
Second, as many in our movement have pointed out, the Republican GOTV operation has been superior to ours. If news accounts of Ken Mehlman's "Weekly Grassroots Report," are accurate, GOP volunteers broke a record this year in voter contacts, reaching more than one million voters in the past month. Need more proof? Look at the Rhode Island primary results, where the GOP managed to identify and coax just about every moderate Republican to the polls on behalf of Lincoln Chafee.
To be sure, we're catching up to the GOP on GOTV. For our part, AFSCME is deploying thousands of volunteers as part of our "Labor to Neighbor" program. Our members will walk and phone bank precincts in their own neighborhoods, rather than in other parts of the country. It is our most aggressive and targeted midterm GOTV operation ever.
Finally, Democrats must remember that wounded animals will do anything to survive - and elephants are no different. In 2002, Republicans lied about Max Cleland's patriotism and commitment to fighting terrorism. In 2004, they demonized gay Americans. This year, it's immigrants. And just last week the desperate GOP nominee for governor in Ohio, faced with a double-digit deficit in the polls, tried to link Democrat Ted Strickland to child sex predators.
I raise these issues not to crush our confidence, but to temper it. If we desire victory on November 7, we must back up our optimism with hard work. In the next two weeks, each of us must volunteer a night or two to phone bank and door knock. We must engage our friends and neighbors at church, high school football games and every other social function in our communities. And we must open our wallets. If any progressive leaders have a dime left over on November 8 that could have been used to change the climate in Washington, they should have their heads examined.
So for the final two weeks of this campaign, let's not measure the majority office drapes. Let's take the House.