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Three Polls and One Book to Remember While Watching Results | The Nation

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Three Polls and One Book to Remember While Watching Results

Americans are voting in the 2010 midterm elections. We know the stakes are huge. But before the polls even have closed, Republicans are already rewriting history to suit themselves.

Take yesterday's New York Times. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat exclaimed, "20 years of liberal gains have been erased in 20 months." We will hear more like that tonight. These boasts are not surprising, coming from the Party of No.

But what's also not surprising is what the electorate is doing in this, and in every recent, federal midterm election.

Big drops in voter turnout… swings in political representation… greater activity by minority factions… these are predictable, historic features of midterms. Take turnout. In 2006, 2002 and 1998, it fell 20 percent from the prior presidential election.

Take swings in representation. Yes, the House is up for grabs. But many districts won by Democrats in 2008 were Republican seats for years. These dynamics are predictable, historians and academics say. They have happened for decades.

And yes, political outsiders have an outsized impact in lower turnout races. But are this year's most visible activists, Tea Party conservatives, any more of a majority than Ross Perot's Reform Party supporters were in 1992? No. In fact, they represent about the same slice of voters: 20 percent. See Amy Gardner's valuable, if late, actual study: "Gauging the Scope of the Tea Party Movement in America." Or read At the Tea Party: The Wing Nuts, Whack Jobs and Whitey-Whiteness of the New Republican RIght and Why We Should Take it Seriously, a new collection of essays edited by yours truly, released yesterday and available exclusively through ORbooks.com.

We need to be clear what this election is and is not. It is not a national presidential election. Midterms are scores of local and state contests. These are not nationwide campaigns. The GOP may declare a new political era has arrived. But it hasn't.

A report on an October 2010 poll by the Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University said, "Americans continue to see major areas of government spending as essential. Whether it is Medicare, Social Security, national defense, food stamps, education, unemployment benefits or environmental protection, about nine in 10 [voters] call these programs at least somewhat important." Furthermore, it noted that "most Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare 'very important.' They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role regulating health care."

Most voters are not angry about the size of government. They are disappointed and frustrated government has not done what they hoped for in hard times. Poll after poll finds a solid majority of voters want government to protect them, especially in tough times. Voters support core programs; retirement security, anti-poverty, education, consumer protection, infrastructure, environmental protection and defense. The pundits, usually so obsessed with polls, skipped USA Today/Gallup's October report which found that "the government is the problem mantra draws only about one in five voters." In contrast,"there is a broad consensus that the government ought to build transportation systems, protect consumers from unsafe products, preserve the environment and combat discrimination. Nearly six in 10 say government should make sure all Americans have adequate health care, despite qualms about the health care overhaul President Obama signed this year."

If Democrats lose big, they can blame themselves for compromising too much, not nurturing their base and not selling even those accomplishments they got for the price of all that compromise. But let's remember what a midterm election is and is not. It is not a national referendum. It is not launching a new political era. Voters still want government to be effective. Ironically, just when America needs a more responsive government, it looks like the process will be anything but that.

Bear that in mind as you watch the results. And if you don't trust media that's been binging on a banquet of campaign cash, tune in the alternative: Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzales, Thom Hartmann, Marc Steiner, David Sirota, Gloria Neal and I are teaming up tonight to co-host unique, all-night live coverage on Free Speech TV. Watch DISH Network ch. 9415, DIRECTV ch. 348 or stream. 8 pm–2 am EST. Send us your comments on Facebook or follow on Twitter: #FSTVQ.

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