WASHINGTON — All the pollsters and pundits are saying the election battles for control of the House and Senate will be close. There had been "reports" from within the White House that the president and his political advisers had become optimistic about the outcome of these contests. But Ken Mehlman, President Bush's director of political affairs, told reporters assembled for a Monitor lunch recently that this was not so. He conceded that Republicans might be able to hold their slight edge in the House, and he said they would be "competitive" in Senate races, but the contests would be "very close."
It may turn out that way. But I was given a cautionary nudge when I read in the Washington Post obituaries that my old friend Darwin (Ole) Olofson, longtime bureau chief of the Omaha World-Herald, had passed on. Besides being a great guy, he was an astute observer of the political scene particularly of the upper Midwest.
It was 40 years ago that just before a big midterm election, I found myself in Omaha. I had picked up a World-Herald and was reading an article by Olofson that contained a bit of good advice. He wrote that the race I was there to report on was "close." But he pointed out that often, political races that are assessed as close turn out to be lopsided victories. He saw this as a tendency for reporters to hedge, to play it safe.
In my experience, when the pollsters who've predicted a close outcome are faced with an election result that doesn't look close at all, they always come up with this defense: The political situation changed after their last polling. Sometimes they will tell us they had taken last-minute polls that showed this change but that it was too late to release it to the media.
I'm not trying to bash the pollsters. Indeed, I do think that the political climate does quite often change at the last minute in hard-fought political battles. I'm only remembering the advice of "Ole" Olofson and trying to apply it to what's likely to happen in Tuesday's election.
So here in my armchair I read, see on TV, and hear over radio that the verdict is "close." But there were those reports that the Bush administration was anticipating that the elections would give the GOP control over both houses. One Washington Post article asserted that the administration was already making plans for pushing programs into law that failed to go forward with the Democrats in control of the Senate.
There was no doubt in my mind that Mr. Mehlman had come to the lunch with the intention of putting down those reports of White House optimism about Nov. 5.
"We are focused on this next election," he told us. "We are not making plans for the future. And we are not doing that because we don't know what will happen in this next election."
And, of course, they don't know. Nobody knows for sure. Indeed, in just the last week, the replacement of Paul Wellstone killed in a plane crash with Fritz Mondale added new uncertainty to the Minnesota Senate race and to the struggle for control of the Senate.