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George Will / November 2, 2014

The Stakes on Tuesday

Mix a pitcher of martinis Tuesday evening to fortify yourself against the torrent of election returns painting a pointillist portrait of the nation’s mind. Before you become too mellow to care, consider some indexes of our civic tendencies. Voting began, and “persuasion campaigning” receded, weeks ago. Mobilization measures became more important than ads. Saturation spending on ads makes for a steep decline in the utility of the last dollars spent on them. In the 2012 presidential race, $46 million was spent on 56,837 ads in Las Vegas; $30 million was spent on 39,259 in Columbus, Ohio. Ads become audible wallpaper, there but not really noticed.

Mix a pitcher of martinis Tuesday evening to fortify yourself against the torrent of election returns painting a pointillist portrait of the nation’s mind. Before you become too mellow to care, consider some indexes of our civic tendencies.

Voting began, and “persuasion campaigning” receded, weeks ago. Mobilization measures became more important than ads. Saturation spending on ads makes for a steep decline in the utility of the last dollars spent on them. In the 2012 presidential race, $46 million was spent on 56,837 ads in Las Vegas; $30 million was spent on 39,259 in Columbus, Ohio. Ads become audible wallpaper, there but not really noticed.

Future campaign money may increasingly be spent on the expensive, because labor-intensive, business of identifying and prodding to the polls likely supporters. Tammany Hall did this 150 years ago, although its infantry did not carry smartphones with apps sending data about voters to the campaigns.

In midterm elections, turnout usually is “frail and pale,” meaning older and whiter than in presidential elections, when three Democratic-leaning constituencies – minorities, young people and unmarried women – are more apt to vote. If Democratic candidates run ahead of their end-of-campaign polls, this will indicate that their party retains its mobilization advantage.

If Republicans narrowly win Senate control, their joy should be tempered by this fact: In 2016, they will be defending 24 of the 34 seats at issue. These will include three in states that are among the 18 that have voted Democratic in at least six consecutive presidential elections. These Republican seats are Pat Toomey’s in Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson’s in Wisconsin and Mark Kirk’s in Illinois.

Because Senate control is at issue, insufficient attention has been paid to 2014’s most important election, which is in the worst-governed state. Illinois’ incumbent governor is Pat Quinn, a compliant time-server who floated up from lieutenant governor when Rod Blagojevich became the fourth of the previous nine governors to be imprisoned. The state has high unemployment, low growth and more than $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. If voters ratify the state’s trajectory by re-electing Quinn, he will accelerate the downward spiral by continuing policies that have produced it, beginning by making permanent the “temporary” tax increases. Republicans will win if their candidate, businessman Bruce Rauner, wins and delivers, among other things, a campaign to term limit the state legislators who, collaborating with government employees unions, buy job permanence using money looted from taxpayers.

Republicans also will win if Quinn wins, thereby making Illinois a scary example to the nation of the terrible toll taken by the “blue model” of governance. Although U.S. law allows a one-party city like Detroit to go bankrupt, there is no provision for state bankruptcies. Hence a Quinn victory would provide, perhaps within his next term, hair-raising excitement for Illinois’ masochistic electorate as lenders recoil from America’s Argentina.

Kansas’ Republican governor Sam Brownback is in a close race with a Democrat who is severely critical of Brownback’s tax cuts – but who does not say he would repeal them. Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker is in a close race with a Democrat who is severely critical of Walker’s limitations on government workers unions – but who does not say she would completely repeal them. Tuesday will tell if these unheroic straddles succeed.

We govern through parties and this autumn President Obama’s has repudiated him. Tuesday will supply evidence of not only how little pulse Obama’s presidency still has, but how much damage he has done to his party. Before he led it to its 2010 debacle, it controlled 62 state legislative chambers to the Republicans’ 36. Entering Tuesday Republicans led Democrats, 59-39. (Subtract two chambers because Nebraska’s Legislature is unicameral and nonpartisan.) Can Democrats stop the hemorrhaging?

Earnest improvers, eager to tightly wrap the regulatory state’s tentacles around the democratic process, say the Republic is ruined because about $1 billion has been spent on ads in the 2014 cycle electing governors, senators and representatives. Considering the enormous consequences the political class has as it sloshes trillions of dollars hither and yon, it is strange that in selecting the 2015 members of this class Americans spent less than half the $2.2 billion they spent last month on Halloween candy.

In this autumn of antic rhetoric, Hillary Clinton achieved almost sublime silliness: “Don’t let anybody tell you … it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” Her subsequent clarification was that this “short-handed” her economic thinking. We are going to need a lot more gin and vermouth.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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