Stepping out of news-director mode for a moment. Who wants prognostications? Here are five predictions for this year’s election. (Not necessarily reflective of how I want it to go.)


1.      It’s going to be 2004 all over again, in reverse. History tends to repeat itself—and for a while there in 2009 and 2010, I was convinced the 2012 election would be a rerun of 1984, except this time with the Democrat rolling to victory. All the pieces were falling into place. The economy was in the tank, but recessions don’t last forever; I figured by 2012 things would be improving—just in time for Obama to pull out the same “Morning In America” message Ronald Reagan used when his economy was recovering from ’82. Meanwhile, the other side would find itself so devoid of qualified candidates that it would have to fall back on the last-ditch option: the losing VP candidate from the previous election. In 1984, it was Walter Mondale; in 2012, it would have been…well, you know.

So I figured, hey, easy Obama landslide. But no. Sure, the economy’s in recovery, but not in a “morning in America” way—more of a “gosh, I think Duke might actually have a decent football team this year” way. And She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named flamed out before she even had a chance to be a last-ditch nominee, so the Republicans went and found someone else—not a great candidate either, but so much for my Mondale parallel.
So 1984’s out, then. But what’s happening instead seems to be a rerun of 2004: a fairly close election, won narrowly by an incumbent who’s just popular enough to squeak by a weak opponent. That opponent, incidentally, is Mitt Romney, a man who violates the single most important, A-number-one, John Kerry rule of presidential politics: Don’t nominate the awkward white guy from Massachusetts.
(Seriously, you’d think after seeing Michael Dukakis riding in a tank, the party bosses wouldn’t keep doing this to themselves.)
Romney’s really not a bad candidate; he probably wouldn’t be a terrible president—but politically he’s weak in all the same ways Kerry and Dukakis were weak: he’s a flip-flopper to the point of absurdity, he comes off as so privileged he’s lost all sense of perspective, and frankly his base doesn’t like him very much. Conventional wisdom says if you’re going to win a presidential election you have to nominate someone who appeals to the center—but there’s scholarly research showing that Karl Rove actually had it right: you can’t win unless you appeal to the base. Nominating the “electable” candidate is a dead end. It’s counterintuitive, but the GOP might have given themselves a better shot if they’d gone with Rick Santorum. (Try getting that image out of your dreams tonight.)
Which isn’t to say that Romney can’t win. Obama is beatable, after all, just as George W. Bush was beatable in ’04. But the polls are suggesting another narrow win for the incumbent, by about the same margin as eight years ago—and if Obama does win, it will have been a missed opportunity for the GOP, just as it was for the Dems in ’04.
(Incidentally, the Kerry Rule only applies to awkward white guys from Massachusetts; the JFK Corollary proves that attractive white guys from Massachusetts can still win. The right shoulda gone with Scott Brown.)
2.      Mitt Romney will win North Carolina. Forget the polls, just look at the early-voting numbers. Sure, they look great for Obama—until you compare them with the early-voting numbers from 2008, which looked a heck of a lot better for Obama, and then reflect on the fact that Obama won here in ’08 by about eight votes. Any shift to the right is going to result in a Romney victory, and the early-voting totals are indicating a pretty clear shift to the right. Evidence: more people voted early in NC this year, but fewer people voted early in Orange County; the percentage of early voters who were Democrats was down slightly this year versus four years ago, both here in Orange and across the state; and the average age of early voters was up by a couple years. (Seniors? Not Obama fans. Let’s not speculate why.)
Result: Romney to win NC by 2-3 points. But hey, maybe the Obama camp knows something I don’t: a couple weeks ago they started pulling their people out of NC, but suddenly in the few days before the election, they sent Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton our way. (And we didn’t call Joe Biden to set up an interview—his people called us.) Obviously they think they can win here—or else they’re so sure they’ve got the election locked up everywhere else that they’re just trying to make it more of an ’08-style landslide. I doubt it, but we’ll see.
3.      Somewhere, voters are going to legalize gay marriage by ballot referendum for the first time, and we’ll have North Carolina to thank. Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington are all voting on the same-sex marriage issue this week. Minnesotans are voting on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man/one woman, same as we did here in May—so even if they vote it down, the state still won’t recognize same-sex marriages. But the stakes are even higher in the other three states, where a vote in favor of same-sex marriage is actually a vote in favor of same-sex marriage: if voters in Maine or Maryland or Washington give the go-ahead, that state will begin (or continue) recognizing same-sex marriages (with all the rights and privileges befalling thereunto).
Any of those four votes could be historic. The thing about ballot referendums is that they’re not particularly kind to minority groups—statistically, voters at the polls are more likely to vote against minority rights and interests than legislators in the state house. (Which is what happens when you put minority rights up to a majority vote. The Progressive movement clearly didn’t read their Federalist Papers.) And so it has gone with the LGBT community: thirty states have put same-sex marriage before the voters, and voters in all thirty states have said no. (In Arizona it took two tries. That’s as good as it’s gotten so far.)
But this time, this year, it’s going to be different. In all four states, according to polls, the pro-gay marriage side is winning. In all four states! It may not work out that way—Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling warns that undecided voters historically break against same-sex marriage in the end—but it’s almost a sure thing that at least one state, and probably more, will vote in favor.
If that happens—when that happens—we’ll be able to look back on the Amendment 1 vote back in May as a turning point. (One of many, of course.) 2012 is the year when the same-sex marriage debate turned the corner—when the pros became the majority and the antis were the ones on the defensive; when it became more controversial to say “I’m against” than it was to say “I’m in favor” (hence Chick-Fil-A); when the President actually had the guts to come out and say what we all knew he was thinking anyway. And that had a lot to do with the fight in North Carolina this spring—where a vote on gay marriage actually came down to the wire (sort of), in the middle of the Bible Belt of all places. Obama came out as a supporter the very next day—and here we are. For same-sex marriage supporters, the Amendment 1 vote was a defeat—but it was a defeat that showed the weakness of the other side, a defeat that signaled a shifting of the winds. When the history of the same-sex marriage debate is written, 2012 will be the most important year—and the Amendment 1 fight in North Carolina may loom as large in that history as the Proposition 8 debate in California.
So, hey. Next time you see Mark Kleinschmidt, shake his hand.
4.      Democrats will probably maintain their local monopoly, but expect at least one close vote. The GOP presence in Orange County is growing stronger, but it’s always going to be a minority voice: there’s a reason Jesse Helms said all those nasty things about Chapel Hill, after all. The Republicans have a relatively strong slate of candidates in the local races this year, but for the most part they’re running against opponents who are simply too well-known and too well-liked to lose. It’s possible to overcome a big name-recognition gap, but only if you’re running alongside a rolling tide of anti-incumbent dissatisfaction, and that’s not really the case in Orange County this year. (If the May primary’s any indication, there’s some dissatisfaction with the Board of County Commissioners—but it’s coming from the left more than the right, so not as much help for Mary Carter.)
But it’s not impossible for Republicans to win here—all it’ll take is the right set of circumstances. Take a tide of dissatisfaction, maybe an economic downturn, and add a strong, socially liberal GOP candidate with crossover appeal (smart, youthful, pro-gay, pro-environment, pro-social justice, pro-business, anti-tax) running against a weaker or lesser-known Democrat. Dave Carter will put up numbers that’ll surprise some people this year; I don’t imagine he’ll beat Ellie Kinnaird, but against a different opponent—maybe. (And he’ll keep it closer than usual: 54 percent of early voters in NC Senate District 23 were Democrats; compare to 59-60 percent in 2008 and 2010.)
But Dave Carter isn’t my dark horse. Watch the race in NC House 50—which comprises all of Orange County’s rural, more conservative precincts and leaves out most of the more progressive urban center. That makes things more interesting—Bill Faison faced a semi-close race in 2010, and Valerie Foushee doesn’t have the incumbency advantage on her side. Foushee still has the edge over Republican pastor Rod Chaney, but only a slight edge: dollars to donuts this ends up being the closest local race, and if any Republican has a chance to win in Orange County this year, it’s Chaney. Here’s the number worth noting: only 52 percent of early voters in NC House 50 were Democrats. To put that into perspective, Democrats made up 58 percent of early voters in the district in 2010, and Faison ended up winning 56 percent of the total vote. So watch that one closely.
5.      The transit tax? Who knows. This debate feels an awful lot like the debate on the quarter-cent sales tax back in 2010, when it narrowly failed. But then again—voters in Durham County voted for the half-cent transit tax and the quarter-cent economic development/education tax simultaneously last year, and they actually supported the transit proposal by a wider margin. If Orange voters are the same way—more comfortable with a half-cent for transit than a quarter-cent for development—then the transit tax should pass, at least by a little bit. (Opponents of the tax in Orange County point out that Durham gets more of the proposed light-rail line than Orange would—so presumably Durham voters would have been keener on it—but still, that light-rail line wouldn’t run anywhere near northern or eastern/southeastern Durham, and voters there approved it anyway.) Regardless, though, this and NC House 50 will be the two closest local votes.
So there you have it. Polls close at 7:30 tonight, and if I’m wrong—well, then I’ll just be in the same company as every other pundit in America.