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How to Keep Score

An insider's guide to keeping track of the election results tonight. Hint: Turnout doesn't matter.

11:00 PM, Nov 4, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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Editor's Note: We'll be posting election analysis all afternoon and all night as returns come in. Be sure to check back often.


WHEN A TV TALKING HEAD appears on tonight's midterm election coverage and insists the key factor in the outcome is turnout, turn him off, pronto. He's telling you nothing peculiar to this year's election, only citing something that always applies to all elections. Or if you're told that some obscure House race in Indiana is the bellwether contest in the entire election, forget it. That race may be important, but you're unlikely to get the result anytime soon. Television coverage on election night largely ignores House battles and even newspapers the next day may not declare the winner. In fact, newspapers are often negligent in making sure House results are up to date.

So what is there to look for in the coverage other than the obvious matter of who's winning control of the Senate and who's capturing the governor's office in the most populous states? I've got a few suggestions. These are races, or collections of races, I'm interested in anyway, and there's a good chance you'll be able to get the results on TV. If not, try the Internet (

Bush races. President Bush has stumped like a madman across the country, including in close House contests. But whether his campaigning is seen as successful or not will be determined by only a handful of races. If brother Jeb is re-elected governor of Florida, that's a plus for Bush. Should Republican John Thune oust Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson in South Dakota, Bush will get credit, since he personally talked Thune into running and has shown up five times in the state to tout him. And in Minnesota, should Republican Norm Coleman squeak by Democrat Walter Mondale, that, too, will be a feather in Bush's cap. He leaned on Coleman, the ex-mayor of St. Paul, to run. Finally, there's Texas. The Senate and governor's races there are must-wins for Bush.

Term limits. This issue has faded, but I'm still a believer in congressional term limits, whether imposed by law or voluntarily by a candidate. Two former GOP House members who term-limited themselves are running for governor. The good news is they get credit from voters for doing what they promised to do--that is, step down. Mark Sanford of South Carolina is likely to oust Democratic governor Jim Hodges. But in Arizona, Matt Salmon has been trailing Democrat Janet Napolitano in pre-election polls.

Incumbent versus incumbent. Four House races actually will get media attention tonight--the four that pit sitting House members against each other. The point here, whether the TV people say so or not, is that Democrats need to win at least three of these contests to make serious headway toward capturing the House. Their best shot: Democrat Tim Holden over GOPer George Gekas in Pennsylvania. Their worst shot is in Mississippi, where Democrat Ronnie Shows's chances against Republican Chip Pickering are poor. Republicans are favored in the other two member-versus-member races: Nancy Johnson over Jim Maloney in Connecticut and John Shimkus over David Phelps in Illinois.

Privatizers. Republican Senate candidates Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, John Sununu in New Hampshire, and Saxby Chambliss in Georgia have defended the idea of allowing individuals to invest a portion (perhaps one-sixth) of their Social Security tax in stocks, bonds, or mutual funds. Of course they'd never say they're in favor of privatization. But that's exactly what their Democratic foes accuse them of supporting. Anyway, if they all win, that would point to a future for partial privatization of Social Security, which the president backs but has been afraid to move ahead with.

Wildly Improbable Upsets. There are always surprises that by definition were unpredicted. But there are places to look for possible upsets. One is California, where Republican Bill Simon has run a clumsy campaign for governor against Democratic incumbent Gray Davis. And President Bush decided against a late appearance on Simon's behalf. Yet he's inched within seven points of the widely loathed Davis in one poll. Another highly unlikely, but still conceivable upset: Democrat Ron Kirk wins the Senate seat in Texas.