Twenty-five years ago, I worked on polling for candidates for governor in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican politics revolves around the issue of status -- the current commonwealth versus statehood -- and voters were and are closely divided between the two parties that back each alternative.
Questions routinely used in polls in the mainland didn't work in Puerto Rico. Ask voters there for favorable impressions of the statehood party candidate, and you got a glorious rush of positive comments from statehood voters -- while from commonwealth voters, not a single word of praise. Ask for unfavorable impressions, and the statehood voters were mute, while the commonwealth voters gush forth with an abundance of complaints. And so it went: Voters thought everything about their own party and its leaders was good and everything about the other party was bad.
Things seem an awful lot like that on the mainland United States these days. Voters are closely divided, and Democrats have almost nothing good to say about George W. Bush, while Republicans have almost nothing but contempt for Democrats.
One consequence is that elections have become less about persuasion and more about turning out the base. In 2004, both parties did so: John Kerry's popular vote was 16 percent higher than Al Gore's, while George W. Bush's popular vote was 23 percent higher than four years before.
In last week's elections, neither party did so well. Turnout in New Jersey and Virginia was not up much from four years before, while in California turnout was down 26 percent (on preliminary figures) from the recall election two years before.
There's another consequence, I thought after examining the 2005 returns: Partisan preference is not closely connected to job ratings of party leaders. Voters stick with their parties no matter what. The two parties' percentages for governor in Virginia were almost identical in 2001, when Bush's job rating was hovering around 80 percent, and in 2005, when his job rating was hovering around 40 percent.
In New Jersey, the Republican actually ran 6 percent better in 2005 than in 2001 (just as Bush ran 6 percent better in the state in 2004 than in 2000). In California, three of the four ballot propositions backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger got yes votes significantly higher than Schwarzenegger's current job approval.