Despite All The Cheerleading

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Despite all the cheering from the media, despite all the pre-mortems, despite the obituaries and strident voices out there there are a few people still trying to put the breaks on premature celebration or premature gloom. Oddly, one of those voices actually comes from the Associated Press. They warn that there is one hard, hard fact out there that makes the polls exceedingly iffy to rely on: the way the districts have been drawn.

WASHINGTON – Michigan's economy is in bad shape, one reason why the governor faces a tougher than expected re-election campaign this year. But good luck finding competitive races among the state's congressional delegation, even in the eight House districts that rank among the worst in the country in terms of declining income, rising poverty and surging unemployment.

If people truly voted their pocketbook, the lawmakers who represent those districts — four Democrats and four Republicans — ought to be nervous heading into the Nov. 7 elections. But seven of those incumbents are virtually assured of another term. The other lost a Republican primary in a safe GOP district.

So why the lack of competitive House races in a politically balanced state that ranks at or near the bottom in so many economic categories?

"The Republicans did a whale of a good gerrymandering job," says John R. Chamberlin, a University of Michigan political scientist.

The races in Michigan exemplify the power of political and racial gerrymandering, which can make some incumbents feel safe even in a campaign year soured by the Iraq war, corruption scandals and pockets of economic misery. The contests show how drawing congressional district lines to protect incumbents makes it even harder for Democrats to pick up the 15 seats they need to capture control of the House.

"It is in doubt because state and national polls assume that Democrats are spread evenly among congressional districts instead of being packed into a few districts," said pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC-MRA in Lansing, Mich.

Republicans controlled the process of drawing new congressional lines in most states following the 2000 census, and they did a good packing Democrats into as few districts as possible, Sarpolus said. The GOP refers to it as their "firewall" against losing the majority.

Now there has always been gerrymandering, so I am not really surprised. But this fact alone makes polling darn near impossible for the national polling companies, so those much ballyhooed poll results are likely even less reliable than they have been in past years. One other odd thing this year. Normally both parties set about trying to lower expectations. I suspect that is at least part of the reason some media outlets are reporting that Republicans are saying they fear losing X number of seats. But you are not hearing that from the Democrats this year. They are not trying to lower expectations and instead give every indication that they are measuring the windows for new drapes. I actually think that may be a mistake, in and of itself.

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