Franken v. Coleman. Prosser v. Kloppenberg. Kamala Harris v. Steve Cooley. And, of course, Bush v. Gore. What’s going on? Why so many hotly contested elections all of a sudden? I can think of five theories offhand.
1) 50-50 Country. Probably the one favored by the national press corps, and thus probably the one least likely to be true. We have become an evenly divided nation.
2) The Reagan-Gingrich-Limbaugh Era. On this theory, there aren’t any more close elections than before; it’s just that we pay more attention to them because of the hyper-partisanship brought about by Movement Conservatism. In 1974, Democrat John Durkin and Republican Louis Wyman ran in a hotly contested New Hampshire US Senate race, which Durkin won by 10 votes. But while it made news, it mattered relatively less because unlike today, the Republican Party was not trying to repeal Medicare and institutionalize plutocracy. After the second recount, Wyman went ahead by two votes, and Durkin appealed to the US Senate, which declared the seat vacant. Finally, Wyman challenged Durkin to a new election, which he accepted, and then won. I can’t imagine that happening today: it would be litigated and decided by the state Supreme Court.
3) Better targeting. Given the ability of the parties to better identify voters, perhaps the latent balance in the electorate is better reflected. The problem with this theory is that there is no reason to think that one party is inherently better than the other at it, although Democratic brain-deadedness is always a factor. This is obviously related to Explanation #1.
4) Randomness. As Leonard Mlodinow pointed out so beautifully in his wonderful book, The Drunkard’s Walk, what appear to be patterned results might just be random. There might not be anything more to it than that.
5) Media. This related to #2: there aren’t any more close elections than previously, but they achieve much greater salience in our minds not so much because of partisanship, but because of the 24-hour news cycle, and the ability to do things like track election results, post developments on Facebook and Twitter, etc.