Let's posit that conservatives have every reason for optimism in the coming elections. The Tea Parties are enthusiastic and powerful. Middle America is fed up with big government. The left is dispirited. The polls looks great. It therefore would take a real wet blanket to warn that the momentum could fizzle and the triumph be less than grand.
Sorry, but this blanket is wet indeed.
Before we go any farther, please understand: This is not a prediction; it's a warning. It isn't meant to kill optimism, but only to temper it. Vince Lombardi's Packers won not because they were confident of victory, but because they were prepared for anything their opponents might throw at them. Churchill offered "sunlit uplands" only after the blood, toil, tears and sweat. As the campaign season enters its home stretch, conservatives need steel to go with their energy, and need to recognize their vulnerabilities that must be shored up.
The reality is that a lot can happen in the last 26 days of a campaign. In Louisiana in 1987, Congressman Buddy Roemer went from fifth place to first in a five-way race for governor. In 1976 in just a few weeks more, Gerald Ford made up almost all of a 32-point poll deficit. In just one week in 1980, Ronald Reagan went from a dead heat to a landslide victory. In 2000, an estimated 3-4 million Evangelical voters stayed home after the Bush drunk driving story broke just four days before the election -- almost costing Bush the campaign. And so on.
With those examples in mind, and remembering that the public remains badly soured on Republicans in a way that just didn't exist in the Newt Gingrich "Contract with America" year of 1994, here are some of the things conservatives must guard against:
Overconfidence itself. Campaigns easily can peak too soon. Campaign workers and candidates alike can allow exhaustion and good polls subconsciously to lead them to coast, while late attacks against them do more damage than expected. Unless a campaign prepares for a well-planned but highly energetic finishing kick, it might find itself finished with a kick to the curb.
An October Surprise. Yeah, yeah, you might say this is such a trope or so trite, so much a typical ploy from losing campaigns, that voters discount anything that comes too late. Well, tell that to those 4 million Evangelical voters in 2000. Tell that to all the pollsters who find, year in and year out, that large percentages of voters make up their minds in the final few days.
This year's surprise could be a doozy. Watch Barack Obama send some drones, or maybe a few guided missiles, to bomb facilities in Iran that help support Mr. Ahmadinejad's nuke plants. Watch him talk tough. Watch the network anchors fall all over themselves praising his wisdom and toughness. Watch the top newspapers run front-page "news" stories citing "independent" analysts who all agree, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Obama's action successfully averted Armageddon. And watch John McCain or Lindsey Graham rush to the microphones to applaud Obama for taking "their" advice.
Get-out-the-vote (GOTV) advantages for the left . Like it or not, the Obama team showed a superb ability in 2008 to turn out its vote. And the unions and trial lawyers, just as freed up by the Citizens United campaign finance case as are all those supposedly evil corporations, will be awash in untraceable money that will find its way to the "streets" -- where only local enforcement, if it's honest, can stop its misuse, because the federal Department of Justice will not, repeat will not, prosecute anybody on the left for buying votes from the prisons and graveyards.
Meanwhile, there is no obvious evidence that the Republican party committees are anywhere near as well focused on GOTV as was the Rove-Gillespie-Mehlman team in 2004, with its micro-targeting and its deliberate piggybacking on state referenda and its whole, meticulously designed GOTV roll-out. Say what you will about the Rove team on other fronts, but its GOTV efforts in 2004 were brilliant -- and, at least at the RNC, which is where funding and organization of such "party-building" activities usually originates, the Republicans seem curiously delinquent this year.
Conservatives can take hope, however, in assurances received Tuesday night that Tea Party groups and the like, independently, seem to be picking up the GOTV slack. Even in 2004, the Rove efforts were bolstered tremendously by the phenomenal outside efforts of cultural-conservative groups who organized themselves to pass referenda against homosexual marriage. The question this time is whether outside groups can do just as well when there is no apparent major overlap from a Republican party effort.
Major electoral abuses. This is the biggest concern of all, with a couple of dozen House or Senate races expected to be nail-biters. Unless Republicans win each election by at least half a percentage point, or even three-quarters of a point, among real, actual, live, legal voters, they should expect to lose in the final "official" tally. Why? Because the left is good at stealing elections. Heck, even dead goldfish have been known to vote. Specifically, a dead goldfish named Princess. Yes, literally.
And now the aforementioned Justice Department, especially its Voting Rights Section, is as corrupt as anything this country has seen since John Mitchell carried Dick Nixon's water. Dead people and felons remain on the voter rolls. Some of them actually vote from their graveyards. Too many military personnel are disenfranchised. Minority voters are protected but white voters aren't. People vote in the name of Alzheimer's patients. Illegal aliens vote -- and, even after being busted for it, are still offered citizenship.
No conservative who goes to bed on Election Night with a tiny lead should rest safe. John Thune learned that against Tim Johnson in South Dakota in 2002. Dino Rossi actually was certified as the winner of Washington state's gubernatorial race in 2004 before having it snatched away. Norm Coleman was upended by Al Franken in Minnesota in 2008. And in Indiana's "Bloody Eighth" district in 1984, Democrats swiped a seat for incumbent Frank McCloskey even after the official count showed Republican Rick McIntyre had won by hundreds of votes.
In short, conservatives can't just win; they need to win each race beyond a steal-able margin. Otherwise, Eric Holder's brigades will find a way to snatch elections away the way armed goons snatched Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives, at Holder's orders, in the dark of night.
THESE ARE ALL reasons for concern. They are not, however, reasons for despair. Never in our adult lifetimes have the American grassroots been so on fire, on its own, in a bottom-up movement -- and a movement for all the right things, so well motivated, and so well informed. Never has the choice between mainstream American traditions and radical leftism been so starkly obvious -- not even when George McGovern ran in 1972. And never have the polls for conservatives looked so good for so long. There is much reason to hope, as long as conservatives and Tea Partiers keep their campaign work ethics, keep their energy up, and keeping moving resolutely forward while continuing to swivel their necks enough to watch their backs.
But because the expectations now are so high, a failure to oust the current congressional leadership in at least one House will be treated, universally, as a major defeat, even if conservative ranks grow greatly. Such a "defeat" could be tremendously dispiriting. And that's all the more reason to avoid over-optimism now, so as not to be demoralized later. Optimism is fine right now, but not euphoria.
In sum, conservatives should remain upbeat -- but also sober, and ever-vigilant. Toil and sweat can lead to electoral sunlit uplands. But the latter continues to depend on the former.
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