The important thing for a pundit is to be sure of his or her opinions. There is no penalty for being sure of one thing now and sure of something else later. Until 6 p.m. ET, when the first returns came in, the analysts were certain that there would be no "message" tonight. This would be a status quo election, no big issues were galvanizing voters, nothing enormous would be decided.
But by 7:45 p.m., the effort to impeach President Clinton was "dead as a dodo," and MSNBC pundits were wondering how long it would be till enraged Republicans deposed Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House. By 9 p.m., when Chuck Schumer's New York Senate victory was announced, the evening had officially become a Democratic Rout.
The best line of the night came from Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., when some cable news anchor asked him to assess the election results so far: "When these things aren't going your way, you say, 'It's still early.' So, I guess it's still early."
In terms of seats changing hands, the Democratic victory--though remarkable--is very small. Tonight's real landslide victory belongs to two other parties. First, the Party of Virtue. It was a clean sweep for the good guys. In tight race after tight race, voters have rejected the venal and the wicked. North Carolina dumped embarrassing Sen. Lauch Faircloth in favor of John Edwards, who can't possibly be worse. Alabama dropped its ill-behaved governor Fob James. New Yorkers had the wisdom to retire their chief sleaze, Sen. Al D'Amato, in favor of Schumer, who has all D'Amato's good qualities and only half of his bad ones. Maryland re-elected a harmless mediocrity (Gov. Parris Glendening) over a holy terror (Ellen Sauerbrey). And to prove that the Party of Virtue is bipartisan, Illinois may drop ethically challenged Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun. Any one of those results constitutes a minor improvement in American politics. All of them together constitute a near miracle.
(Tonight's actual miracle: Reform Party candidate Jesse "The Body" Ventura leads in the Minnesota governor's race. America has had plenty of athlete politicians and plenty of actor politicians. Now, at last, we can have both in one package: a pro wrestler.)
The other big winner Tuesday night, oddly enough, was the Party of Vice. There is much crowing about the resurgence of the Democratic Party in the South, given Fritz Hollings' Senate victory, gubernatorial upsets in South Carolina and Alabama, and a probable gubernatorial win in Georgia. Why has this happened? Because the Democratic Party has become the Lottery Party. In Georgia, retiring Democratic Gov. Zell Miller instituted a hugely popular state lottery that has raised tens of millions of dollars for public education. Democrat Roy Barnes, who promised to continue Miller's policies, is winning the election to succeed him. In Alabama and South Carolina, the incumbent governors, Christian conservative Republicans Fob James and David Beasley, resisted efforts to start Georgia-style lotteries. They are both getting thrown out of office, defeated by Democrats running on pro-lottery platforms. Who says the lottery is a sucker's gamble?
As they do during the final week of every campaign, the Turnout Bores have hijacked the '98 election. They have persuaded most of the media that this campaign is a pudding without a theme, that there are no galvanizing issues, and that everything hinges on which party does a better job getting its core voters to the polls. (The question: Can my blacks and seniors beat your Christian conservatives?)
Never mind that every election hinges on turnout. Accept that the Turnout Bores are onto something. In fact, why not take their theory a step further? The election depends on turnout. And what, more than anything, does turnout depend on? The weather, of course.
To that end, Slate offers a real Election Day forecast, predicting the outcomes of close Senate and gubernatorial races based on the Tuesday weather map in Monday's USA Today. (Why USA Today? It does not suffer from the notorious liberal meteorological bias that afflicts the New York Times and the Washington Post.) In the interest of accuracy, Slate has updated the predictions based on USA Today's Tuesday forecast. The updated predictions appear in italics after the original predictions.
According to USA Today, most of the country will experience cloudy but good weather Tuesday. Rain will fall from Idaho to Georgia. At first glance, the map looks like good news for the GOP: They have close races in many of the rain-drenched states, and rain generally benefits Republicans, who can count on fervent conservatives to get to the polls in any weather. But a closer analysis of the weather map suggests Mother Nature actually favors the Democrats this year. (The survey starts in the Northeast and works its way clockwise around the country. It covers most but not all close Senate and gubernatorial races.)
New York: Cool and cloudy but no rain. Democrats should turn out smartly in New York City, helping Chuck Schumer unseat Sen. Al D'Amato.
Maryland: There is a 30 percent chance of rain in Maryland, which means that there is a 30 percent chance of an Ellen Sauerbrey victory in the governor's race. Her fervent Republican followers would go to the polls in a typhoon. Gov. Parris Glendening's supporters are so unenthused that they'll stay home if it merely drizzles. It's raining in Maryland this morning: Chalk this one up for Sauerbrey.
North Carolina: A deceptive forecast. The rain ought to help incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth, but it actually favors Democratic challenger John Edwards. Showers are expected only in the western half of the state, which is especially conservative. The rain could suppress Republican turnout in the west without lowering Democratic turnout in the center of the state. Edwards scores an upset. The updated forecast suggests it will rain across the entire state, suppressing Democratic turnout too. This will help Faircloth win.
South Carolina: As in North Carolina, the election could hang on how far east it rains. Northwestern South Carolina, the only part of the state that's supposed to get rain, is heavily Republican. If this forecast holds, Republicans upstate may stay home, but Democrats in the southeast won't. Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings should hold his seat, and gubernatorial candidate Jim Hodges should upset Republican Gov. David Beasley. If it rains across the whole state, Republican Bob Inglis could go to the Senate, and Beasley could keep the governorship. More bad news for Democrats. Tuesday's forecast calls for rain across the state. Beasley and Inglis benefit.
Georgia: Showers over the entire state will deter Democrats. Republican incumbent Sen. Paul Coverdell and Republican gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner will win their tight races. It stops raining in the western half of the state, perhaps raising turnout in Democratic Atlanta.
Kentucky: A bitter pill for Democratic Senate candidate Scotty Baesler, who has been running even against Republican Jim Bunning. Bunning's campaign manager was quoted on Monday saying that "if it rains, we win." Forecast: rain across the state. Republicans pick up a Senate seat.
Nevada: Dry and warm, as always. This will slightly help Democratic incumbent Sen. Harry Reid in his tossup race with Rep. John Ensign.
California: Clear weather throughout the state keeps turnout high and aids Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis. They win easily. Rain in Northern California could cut Democratic turnout. This may lead Republican Senate challenger Matt Fong and gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren to upset victories.
Washington: News flash: It's not going to rain in Seattle! Turnout in the Democratic city will be heavy, and Sen. Patty Murray will hold off Republican challenger Linda Smith. Oops! Now it is supposed to rain in Seattle.
Wisconsin: Cold but dry, which should give a small boost to Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
And the wild card pick: Illinois. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun has been rising in the polls, but she still seems to trail Republican challenger Peter Fitzgerald. Good news for Moseley-Braun in USA Today. Chicago, her stronghold, will have dry weather, and heavily Republican downstate Illinois will be soaked. She holds her seat against all expectations. The new forecast says Chicago weather will be "dismal," just as bad as it is downstate. Sorry, Carol.
(We promise that these Slate predictions are just as reliable as the weather forecasts they're based on.)