By Ken Feltman
It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organized creatures.
– Charles Darwin on the earthworm
Christopher Lloyd of Cambridge University has written an interesting book about the contributions of different species to today’s life on earth. He ranks earthworms as most important. Algae is second. Homo sapiens come sixth.
Lloyd’s analysis took me back to an unfinished discussion in a high school biology class. The teacher stressed the primacy of homo sapiens because we are the “most evolved” species and are “ever evolving.” Always the contrarian, I suggested that “ever evolving” meant that humans had not found a comfortable niche within nature and were struggling to fit within our environment. The struggle caused our gradual changes, our evolution. Other species such as sharks, viruses and worms have evolved far enough to find their comfort zone. Then they stopped evolving and got busy replicating a successful species. If stressed by changes in their environment, those species would attempt to adapt through rekindled evolution.
The teacher disagreed and said that species never stop evolving. I responded that evolution was species specific. Worms had achieved the level of evolution needed to flourish in their environment. Humans seemed to have more evolving to go. I pointed out that Charles Darwin wrote a whole book extolling the contributions of worms to life on earth and the production of soil.
The teacher cut me off as the class roared in laughter. Later, a classmate asked if I had bugs for brothers and sisters. I tried to put this bit of precocious immaturity out of my mind. Lloyd brought it back and made me wonder whether, as human evolution continues, public officials can learn from worms. Mark Twain said that we can teach a congressman almost everything that we can teach a flea. So maybe there’s hope with worms.
Worms are very good at adjusting early to changes in the weather. They get closer to the surface when rain threatens, ready to poke their heads above water-logged soil. Some congressmen would be drowned worms the first time a storm passed over. Take Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.).
Mollohan was trounced in a May primary. He has tenacity: With the death of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd (D), Mollohan is elbowing for the appointment to the unexpired portion of Byrd’s term. He has lost his ability, if he ever had it, to understand the prevailing mood of the voters. He had held his House seat since 1982 and his father had held it for 14 years prior to that. Mollohan figured that he had clear sailing earlier in the year when he agreed to support Obamacare and (in what has been called a completely unrelated decision) the Obama Justice Department agreed to drop corruption charges against him. He also claimed that his record of bringing pork projects to his district insulated him from the anti-incumbent mood. Voters disagreed. A poll two months before the primary showed that he was vulnerable. Democratic officials in Washington and West Virginia warned Mollohan, repeatedly, frantically.
Warned, he scoffed. Whipped, he whined. He blamed ungrateful voters and the media. He struck out at his opponent’s campaign tactics. But he never stuck his head above the dirt to breathe in the air of his district. He drowned with 44 percent of the primary vote against a state senator who drew votes simply because he was not Mollohan. Many other incumbents will suffer the same waterlogged extinction in November.
This is an anti-incumbent year, you say? True, so incumbents should be on notice. But most incumbents have little idea of the depth of their troubles. Incumbents are lured into the trap of complacency by the very nature of the campaign process. Incumbents tend to spend most of their campaign time with people who intend to support them. As they get closer to an election, this concentration increases because undecided voters have had their chance to ask their questions or do their research. They are not interested in attending the incumbent’s campaign rallies.
Nothing much that will help an undecided voter make up his or her mind is available at a partisan rally. Therefore, as the campaign progresses, the incumbents hear the voices of opposition as reflected by the opposing campaign and the media, not by the voters themselves. With each passing week, beginning in spring and early summer, incumbents have less and less contact with undecided and opposing voters. No wonder losers so often express surprise and say that the crowds at their campaign events were warm and supportive. They were. But the winning side had more committed crowds.
Politicians are slow learners
Losers will sometimes point out that the crowds at their rallies were loud, enthusiastic and ready to work at getting voters to the polls. Again, they are correct. This is because of a perverse tendency among true believers. As they sense that their favorite is in trouble, they turn up their own intensity. But the intensity of the committed has limited influence on the typical voter.
Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), informed that the late October crowds at his opponent’s rallies were larger and more intense than his own, smiled: “Good, they sense their own perilous situation.” Dirksen won. Some newspapers expressed surprise, based on the cheering and excited crowds at the opponent’s events. In defeat, the opponent said he could not understand how the large, noisy crowds did not make the difference. “I felt their support. We had hundreds, thousands, at every campaign stop. We know Dirksen had smaller crowds, very quiet crowds. I think I should have won.”
Elections are full of should haves, would haves and could haves. The enthusiastic crowds for Dirksen’s opponent were composed of the party faithful, fearing defeat and banding together.
Surprising as it seems, the typical voter may not even realize that he or she has made decisions long before November that lead to a vote for a candidate best reflecting all the little, seemingly unrelated decisions. Modern political researchers probe for indicators. They find out which voters are more committed and likely to vote. They learn which issues could make a difference. They find the little reasons. They project based on those subtle hints. They can begin to make fairly accurate judgments as early as June or July. The indicators may have nothing to do with a particular candidate but show how the voter will make the decision or what factors will be important to the voter. Then, the analysts make their projections. Each election, the analysts get better and better.
Instinctively, the media reject such early notice. Voters, too, refuse to believe the analysis: “How can some nerd at a university know how I’m likely to vote?”
Candidates refuse to accept that their fate is sealed months before they begin their formal campaign. But the evolution of political research continues, with more researchers sticking their heads up all the time. Will the candidates evolve? Probably, in time a few savvy politicians will take a chance that they might gain an advantage from the evolving research. Then, a few of those savvy politicians may learn how to turn the research to their advantage. Remember, when “opposition research” evolved as a campaign technique, most candidates shunned it because they assumed that it was the job of their campaign to extol their virtues, not compare and contrast with the opponent. Negative campaigning grew out of opposition research. The evolutionary jury is still out on negative campaigns: Will they be the Neanderthals or the homo sapiens?
In a few days, as the United States celebrates July 4, the outcome of the 2010 election will be pretty much determined. Yet many incumbents do not start campaigning until August, September or October. The media begin concentrating in September and then redouble their efforts in mid-October. Frankly, most voters have decided by then, even if those voters will not admit it to others – or even themselves. The best political researchers have known this for years.
How have you already decided to vote in November? You say you don’t know? Some smart-alecky college kids say that they know even if you don’t. They say this will be a bad year for incumbents. They have learned that Democratic voters are uneasy and uncertain. Republican voters and independents are more likely to vote. They figure that because there are more Democratic incumbents, the Republicans will capture the House and have a shot at the Senate.
Do these kids know as much in their environment as a worm does in its environment?