Despite all the inane media chatter, one lesson you SHOULDN’T draw is that this represented some kind of stinging rebuke to President Obama or his policies. Obviously, that is the lesson Republicans would like you to draw. And the media have to frame the election in some kind of mega-narrative – why else would anyone west of Buffalo care about the outcome of an election in New York’s Northern-most Congressional District? And with few actual data points – primarily two gubernatorial races and two Congressional races – opinion flows in to fill the factual void. Let me contribute to that vacuous opinion.
As Gail Collins wrote Thursday:
There seems to be a semiconsensus across the land that the myriad decisions voters made around the country this week all added up to a terrible blow to the White House. If that’s the way we’re going to go, I don’t think it’s fair to dump all the blame on gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia. …
We have a dramatic saga story line brewing here, and I do not want to mess it up by pointing out that Obama’s party won the only two elections that actually had anything to do with the president’s agenda. Those were the special Congressional races in California and upstate New York.
What lessons can we draw? I think we can safely conclude that during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, when states and local governments are being forced to slash budgets and raise taxes to fill the gap left by plummeting revenue, and with the narrow measure of unemployment running over 10% nationally and much higher in many local areas, it’s not a great time to be an incumbent politician, especially a chief executive. (It doesn’t help if you are the former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs or a Wall Street billionaire.)
Let’s look at the individual races, starting with the two governor’s races.
Here’s Collins again:
The defeat of Gov. Jon Corzine made it clear that the young and minority voters who turned out for Obama will not necessarily show up at the polls in order to re-elect an uncharismatic former Wall Street big shot who failed to deliver on his most important campaign promises while serving as the public face of a state party that specializes in getting indicted.
Corzine is one of the most unpopular governor’s in the country. As far back as April 2006, his approval rating was an abysmal 35% -- and that was long before the financial crisis and the Great Recession (and, I might add, ten months before Barack Obama even declared his candidacy for president). By June of this year it was still languishing at 36%. Under the circumstances, the fact that he lost his bid for reelection by less than five percentage points is actually rather remarkable. In fairness to the Republican Party, his opponent, Chris Christie, was also a weak candidate. A better candidate should have crushed Corzine.
As you can see from this chart, Corzine with 45% of the vote significantly outperformed his 37% approval rating. For that matter, Christie failed to get even 50% of the vote. (Independent Chris Daggett – no relation – got 6% of the vote.)
Christie made no attempt to “nationalize” the election (unlike Corzine who benefitted from campaign appearances by President Obama). Not once in any of Christie’s campaign ads did he ever mention Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or the Democrats' health care plan or the stimulus package. Not only did he not attack President Obama, he actually ran TV ads featuring positive references to the Obama campaign and invoking his message of “Change.” (And check out Christie’s obsequious “Message to President Obama” welcoming him to New Jersey.) Obviously, that is a smart tactic in a heavily-Democratic state. But it makes it hard for Republicans to subsequently claim that it was a referendum on President Obama (well, it doesn’t make it hard from them to do it – just hard to do it credibly).
Then there are the exit polls. Among those who actually voted in the New Jersey election this week, President Obama’s approval rating was 57% -- identical to his share of the New Jersey vote last year. This is impressive given that New Jersey voters this year were older and white than last year’s voters, suggesting President Obama’s approval rating is actually up in that state. According to a CNN exit poll, 60 percent of New Jersey voters said that President Obama played no role in their gubernatorial vote, 19 percent said that their vote was one in support of the President, and 20 percent saying that their vote was in opposition to President. The 17% of New Jersey voters who identified health care as their most important issue went for Corzine by a 4-to-1 margin (not exactly consistent with the notion that this was a vote protesting health care reform in DC).
The CNN exit poll showed the same thing in Virginia: A 55 percent majority of voters said that the President was not a factor in their vote, and an additional 18 percent indicated their vote in Virginia was one of support in the President. Just 24 percent of voters indicated that their vote was one of opposition to President Obama. In Virginia the change in the make-up of the electorate was particularly stark. As Ruy Teixeira wrote in the New York Times:
In Virginia, while the president’s 2009 approval rating was 5 points less than his 2008 voting result, the 2009 electorate was also far more conservative than last year’s. Besides being far older and whiter than in 2008, the voters in Virginia on Tuesday said they had supported John McCain last November by 8 points, meaning they were not favorably inclined toward President Obama to begin with. In fact, given that only 43 percent of these voters said they supported Mr. Obama last November, his 48 percent approval rating among them does not indicate a shift away from him but rather toward him.
It’s hard to see how a vote against the Democratic candidate in Virginia, Creigh Deeds, was a vote against Democrats in Washington – he did everything he could to distance himself from any position that might actually inspire the Democratic base to turn out. From ThinkProgress:
[On energy policy:] By the end of his campaign, Deeds was running ads attacking Obama’s clean energy agenda, saying Obama’s “cap and trade bill” would “hurt the people of Virginia.” Other ads carried the same message: “Creigh Deeds says no to any new energy taxes from Washington.” Instead of disputing his Republican opponent’s false attacks on climate legislation, Deeds amplified them. … During the primary season, Deeds defended the despicable practice of mountaintop removal, telling a reporter in March, “The coal industry calls it surface mining.” . [On health care policy:] During the final gubernatorial debate, Deeds stressed that health reform must “reduce costs so more people can afford insurance” and “increase coverage,” but argued that creating the option of a public health care plan “isn’t required.” “I don’t think the public option is necessary in any plan…I would certainly consider opting out if that were available to Virginia,” he said. …
Deeds also tacked right on labor (opposing the top legislative priorities of organized labor) and immigration issues (among other things, voting to designate English as the state’s official language). The result, predictably, was an absolutely horrible Democratic turn out. Interestingly, despite the heavy GOP tilt to the 2009 electorate, the 24% of Virginia voters who cited health care as their main issue still went for the Democrat Deeds by a 51 to 49 margin. And the 42% of Virginia voters who described themselves as “moderate” also broke for Deeds, 53 to 47. But conservatives outnumbered liberals 40 to 18% -- reflecting a more motivated turnout on the right. That was the key to Republicans success.
Virginia, which holds its gubernatorial race in the off-year after presidential election, has a history going back 32 years to 1977 of always electing a governor of the party opposing the president elected (or re-elected) the previous year. For example, in November 2001, Virginians elected Democrat Mark Warner (now a US Senator) to be governor. At the time, George W. Bush enjoyed an 86% approval rating (due entirely to 9-11 two months earlier – just days prior to 9-11 his approval rating was 51%). No one was claiming at that time that Warner’s election represented a rebuke to Bush. And, yes, even the year after Ronaldus Magnus was elected president in 1980, Democrat Chuck Robb was elected governor of Virginia (and Democrat Gerald Baliles was elected in 1985, the year after Reagan’s re-election). Reagan’s presidency managed to survive. (In an interesting aside, Reagan’s approval rating in October 1981 was 56% -- identical to President Obama’s 56% last month.)
None of this is meant to suggest that it was actually a good thing for Democrats to lose those two governor races. They represent genuine gains for Republicans and Republicans are to be congratulated for running better campaigns than the Democrats in those states. Deeds, in particular, was a weak candidate who ran a miserable campaign. But it is a stretch to argue that either race was a mandate on President Obama. Indeed, both Republican candidates resisted efforts to “nationalize” their races and focused, instead, on local issues.
The only two Federal races on Tuesday were the special elections in New York’s 23rd Congressional District and California’s 10th Congressional District. Let’s start with the easy one.
Did you even hear about this race? Democrat John Garamendi won by 10 points in the district formerly represented by Ellen Tauscher, whom President Obama named to a State Department position. Although this is a pretty safe Democratic district, Tauscher was a “New Democrat” who tended to frustrate progressives by voting as if she represented a swing district. Garamendi, by contrast, is a whole-hearted progressive. To take one particularly timely example, he not only supports a robust public option, he supports a single-payer health care system.
NY-23, by contrast, has been represented only by Republicans pretty much ever since there has been a Republican Party – going back to 1872. As you no doubt heard, the Democrat, Bill Owens, won the race to fill the seat vacated by Republican John McHugh, whom President Obama named to be Secretary of the Army. His opponent, Don Hoffman, was a far-right, third-party candidate who had become the darling of the Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck crowd. As it appeared to become a two-man race between Hoffman and Owens, the official Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, dropped out and endorsed the Democrat. This is the one race that Republicans clearly framed as a referendum on DC Democrats, as Sarah Palin, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and a host of other national Republicans came into the district to campaign for Hoffman. This teabagger insurgency ended up putting a safe Republican district into the Democratic column on election night. (Had Scozzafava not received 6% of the vote as a result of early absentee ballots, Owens probably would have had a margin even bigger than his eventual 4% win.) Owens has already been sworn into office and will be on hand for the vote on the House’s health care bill today, or whenever it takes place. He has said he plans to vote for the bill.
Admittedly, the circumstances of the NY-23 race were so bizarre that it is hard to generalize the results to other races. (The Urban Dictionary now recognizes “scozzafavaed” as verb meaning “purged of moderation.”) More from Collins today:
Meanwhile, there’s nothing but confidence and serenity among the right-wing tea-party types. They cannot get over the triumph in upstate New York, where thanks to their really extraordinary efforts, a completely safe Republican seat went to the Democrats. Think how far their movement has come! Only a few months ago, they barely had the power to disrupt a town meeting. And soon they will be able to destroy anything in their path, including their own party, like conservative locusts.
The bottom line from Tuesday’s election is that Nancy Pelosi has two more votes for health care reform than she had a week ago. (Republicans have now lost five consecutive competitive special elections in Republican-friendly territory.)
The anti-incumbent mojo was at work in New York City, as Michael Bloomberg had to spend over $100 million of his own money – more than either Bush or Kerry spent on their general election campaigns in 2004 – to barely vanquish his Democratic opponent, securing only 50.6% of the vote. (Quick: Name Bloomberg’s Democratic opponent.) At least he didn’t buy any more votes than necessary. (That reminds me of the apocryphal story of the cable John F. Kennedy received from his rich father, Joseph P. Kennedy, during his first run for Congress: “Don't buy a single vote more than necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide.”) Bloomberg’s spending worked out to around $180 per vote. Too bad voters didn’t have the option of just taking the money and skipping all the campaign ads. (A bit of trivia: Did you know the population of New York City at 8.3 million is higher than that of Virginia at 7.7 million and only slightly less than that of New Jersey at 8.6 million? At least this wasn’t being touted as a big defeat for President Obama.)
One of the biggest disappointments on Tuesday night was the passage of Maine’s Referendum 1 which overturned the state’s gay marriage law. Conan O’Brien had an interesting observation:
"Voters in the state of Maine voted no to gay marriage, but yes to medical marijuana. That’s right---people in Maine believe marriage should be a sacred institution between a really stoned man and a really stoned woman."
In the glass-half-full department, the good news is that over 47% of Maine voters supported gay marriage. And Maine isn’t California … or even Vermont. It is a pretty conservative place (you might have heard that it has two Republican Senators). Who could have imagined this result five years ago, let alone ten years ago? Young voters overwhelming have no problem with the idea of two people of the same sex entering into a committed lifetime relationship. It’s only a matter of time. On the same night, Washington State voters defeated a referendum that would have repealed the state’s “everything-but-marriage” law. (Stephen Colbert had a good segment on Referendum 71, if you happened to miss it.) In so doing, Washington became the first state in the country to approve a gay-equality measure not by court fiat or legislative action, but by the direct will of the people. And Houston (of all places) may become the largest city in the country with an openly gay mayor (Annise Parker was the top vote-getter on Tuesday heading into a run-off next month).
Washington State and Maine also both decisively defeated ballot measures modeled on Colorado’s disastrous “Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR)” measure (which Colorado voters later largely repealed after their state fell to #49 nationally in per capita state spending on education among other things). If Tuesday was supposedly a big victory for anti-government teabagger types, the voters of Washington and Maine apparently didn’t get the memo.
What does all of this portend for 2010? Not much, I think. But I don’t think Democrats have any reason to be sanguine. A bad economy tends to overwhelm just about everything else and the US economy will almost certainly still be very bad a year from now. Unemployment is now over 10% and is unlikely to be much lower next November (I hope to come up with a post on unemployment in the next few days). Tax revenue is plummeting – at the federal level it has fallen below 15% of GDP, its lowest level since 1950 (!). At the state level, that means huge spending cuts and/or tax increases. In that environment, I wouldn’t want to be a governor running for reelection.
There are 37 governor’s seats up in 2010 with the current occupants almost evenly split between Democrats (19) and Republicans (18). After Tuesday’s election, the Cook Report designated another seven of those seats as being in peril for the incumbent party (four Republican and three Democratic). Overall, Cook considers eight Democratic seats and nine Republican seats at risk, but with Republicans having the edge in four of those and Democrats in none.
After two blow-out elections, Democrats almost certainly will lose seats in the House – the question is just how many. Democrats picked up 27 House seats (and no Senate seats) in Reagan’s first mid-term election in 1982; Republicans picked up 54 House seats and eight Senate seats in Clinton’s first mid-term in 1994. (Bush’s first mid-term in 2002 was a bit of an aberration because of his continuing post-9/11 bump – Republicans actually picked up seven House seats and two Senate seats in that election.)
In the Senate, 38 seats are up in 2010, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Cook currently has 6 Democratic seats and 5 Republican seats in the “toss-up” category. Until likely opponents are defined, it is too early to have either leaning toward a pick up by one party or the other. At this point, if I had to guess, I think it is likely the Democrats will lose anywhere from one to three Senate seats. The best case scenario at this point is probably Democrats holding their own – a net Democratic pick up is unlikely. But it is still too early to be making even educated guesses.
While the bad economy is a virtual certainty, favoring Republicans and challengers generally, the wild card is the fanaticism on the right. If I were a Republican I would be worried that the forces that were at work in NY-23 this year could result in successful primary challenges to Republican incumbents and a lot of candidates from the far right of the political spectrum ending up on the ballot. This dynamic could at least partially neutralize the advantages that Republicans should have as the out-of-power party in a mid-term election with a horrible economy.
And there are other reasons for optimism among Democrats.
The percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Republicans is at a record low. The pollster.com average of polls currently has that number at 22% (vs. 34.6% for Democrats). While that is significant, I wouldn’t read too much into it. A lot of folks who used to call themselves Republicans now prefer to identify as Independents – and many of them are actually to the right of the Republican Party, not somewhere in the center. Also, people tend to jump on the winning bandwagon – with Democrats in control of everything, there is a natural tendency for Republican self-identification to decline. Still – 22% is pretty miserable.
And for what it is worth, a CNN poll this week continues to show Democrats with a six-point edge (50-41) on the generic ballot among registered voters (i.e., asking voters which party they would rather see controlling Congress). An Ipsos/McClatchy poll gives Democrats a seven-point edge (48-41) on the generic ballot test.
Much will depend on what President Obama and Congressional Democrats are able to actually accomplish over the next year. Like an off-year election, a mid-term election is all about turnout. There is little likelihood that Democrats will be able to generate the kind of turnout among young voters and minority groups for a mid-term election that they did for the general election in 2008. But if Democrats are seen as delivering on their promises and making genuine progress, they could do OK.
I think the populist anger is real and it is big, particularly against the financial bailout – and that is not necessarily partisan or right or left. If Democrats don’t deliver on meaningful financial reform, I think there will be a big backlash, including among Democratic voters. Democrats will also suffer if they don’t deliver on meaningful health care reform. If Democratic members of Congress revert to form, get scared of their own shadows and pull back from any meaningful accomplishments, the story of the 2010 election could be all about turnout on the right (the Virginia governor race writ large).
And that is not a pretty picture.