The uncertainty factor in elections: When blunders can upset predictions

Less than a month before the midterm election, the campaign is a picture of uncertainty.

Take, for example, Elenore Klepser, a resident of a suburb near Buffalo, N.Y., and a loyal Republican – at least until recently. She has supported Congressman Thomas Reynolds for as long as she can remember. But now, she wonders if Mr. Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has been part of a coverup in the congressional page scandal.

Or take Patty Wetterling, a Democrat and child-safety advocate in Minnesota. She was lagging in her first-time race for a vacant House seat until the scandal broke. Now campaigning on a demand for expulsion of members involved in an apparent coverup, she was found in a Zogby/Reuters survey to be running neck and neck with her Republican opponent in what has been considered a Republican stronghold.

The page scandal is certainly not the only factor, but a recent Zogby/Reuters poll found Democrats leading in 11 of 15 races for crucial seats currently held by Republicans, putting control of the House within reach of the Democrats.

Add the gloomy situation in Iraq, and a Washington Post/ABC News poll finds Americans saying that they trust Democrats more than Republicans to deal with the nation's biggest problems, by a margin of 54 percent to 35 percent.

What strikes me is the way personal issues can bubble up to the surface, be swiftly spread by the media, and send candidates running for cover.

Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia found himself in serious trouble because of matters such as his use of the word "macaca," his inept handling of the revelation of his Jewish ancestry, and questions about his handling of stock options in a Virginia tech company. As of now – and every assessment of the election must be prefaced with "as of now," – Mr. Allen is still marginally ahead of his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, 48 to 45 percent.

But this is no longer the romp that was supposed to cascade Allen back into office with dreams of a presidential candidacy beyond that.

When one word can become an issue, when one personal scandal involving congressional pages can plunge the House into turmoil – it isn't safe to make predictions anymore.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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