Election 2009 — What Have We Learned?

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, November 11, 2009)


Any good statistician will preach the value of “sample size,” of making sure there are enough relevant results before proclaiming a trend. It’s why pollsters require a certain number of respondents and why good sportswriters know not to get too excited when a young player has one good week.

In today’s politics, unfortunately, hyperbole continues to stick such sober analysis in the corner. And so it was with Election Night 2009, when cable news and both parties tried desperately to tie a few races into some kind of national narrative. Now that the time for knee-jerk overanalysis has passed, it’s clear such a narrative doesn’t really work.

The idea that two gubernatorial races — state, not federal offices — were inherently referenda on the Obama presidency never made much sense regardless of their outcomes. You wouldn’t know it from watching Fox, whose over-the-top glee was well parodied on “Saturday Night Live” the following weekend. In The New York Times, Gail Collins gently mocked the “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.” Treating a few scattered races in an off-year election with low turnout as a national trend is just bad punditry.

Which isn’t to say Republicans don’t have reason to celebrate their victories in Virginia and New Jersey, or that Democrats lack potential reasons to worry.

Take Virginia, where GOP attorney general Bob McDonnell crushed Democrat Creigh Deeds with 59 percent of the vote. Conservatives have tried really hard to argue this somehow shows Virginia turning its back on President Obama, who last year became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to carry the state.

If anything, the opposite would be true, considering Deeds tried to run as an outsider and inexplicably made the mistake of distancing himself from the White House. At least until calling in the president for an emergency event just days before the election. The race did prove, however, that after consecutive big-name governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, the Democrats of Virginia clearly didn’t develop much of a bench. Other than his Capra-esque name, state legislator Deeds brought little to the table against a respected opponent. His high point in state politics to this point was losing the 2005 attorney general’s race to McDonnell, setting up this year’s predictable repeat performance. For all the recent talk of Virginia “turning blue,” national coverage often forgets that who the parties run has as much or more to do with the outcome than the “D” or “R” next to their name. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that if the Democratic gains of the last two cycles are to continue, the party needs to avoid becoming top heavy in places such as Virginia.

New Jersey governor Jon Corzine had different but bigger problems. Where Deeds struggled to make a name for himself, Corzine’s name had become synonymous with low approval ratings.

His background working for Goldman Sachs — one of the more well-known villains of our current economic collapse — certainly didn’t help. While Corzine left Goldman well before the current crisis, he will forever remain linked with that firm. After all, he reportedly received more than $300 million when he cashed out there in 1999. And he entered Garden State politics by touting his business background and spending tens of millions from his personal fortune to defeat more experienced politicians in his 2000 Senate primary and general election. Having married himself to that backstory, Corzine proved unable to divorce himself from it in the public mind, despite a generally laudable Senate record.

Exit polling showed that those voters focused on national issues such as health care clearly supported Corzine despite his baggage, while those focused on state issues went for the unfortunately named GOP candidate Chris Christie, who eked out a narrow victory. New Jersey’s Democratic Party, including individuals in Corzine’s state cabinet, has been the subject of multiple, high-profile corruption investigations — a surefire way for a party to lose its way even in a state where it usually dominates. Just as GOP corruption helped Democrats pick up some previously noncompetitive seats in 2006, Democratic corruption gave the Republicans an opening in New Jersey. The best way to prevent Corzine’s loss from starting a trend is for Democrats to clean up the state party’s act.

On the flip side, Democratic groups have been celebrating the House victory in upstate New York, where Bill Owens won the heavily conservative 23rd District against far-right Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. While he pulled off an impressive win, Owens owes the victory in large party to the Republicans’ screw-up, and will be a vulnerable incumbent if the GOP gets smart next time.

The Hoffman situation — a third-party bid backed by the likes of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh that forced the mainstream Republican from the race — mirrors other recent races where the Republicans’ right wing has placed ideological lockstep over electability.

In the past few years, northeastern moderate conservatives such as Arlen Specter and Jim Jeffords fled the party under the threat of right-wing primary challenges, while the Palin-Limbaugh wing successfully defeated experienced Senate prospects such as Heather Wilson in 2008 New Mexico or Bob Schaffer in 2004 Colorado. While the work of Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy and Obama’s aggressive 2008 campaign were obviously huge factors in building the current Democratic majority, the Republicans’ ability to drive away moderates by running hard-right candidates certainly didn’t hurt. Even now, the far right wing is planning to challenge Lindsey Graham in the South Carolina primary and to try blocking electable Republican Senate candidates such as Rep. Mark Kirk in Illinois and Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida. If they succeed, they’ll cost their party its best chance to start eroding the Democratic hold on the Senate.

Overall, the 2009 election failed to deliver the comprehensive narrative both parties desperately hoped for. Instead, it issued small-scale, case-by-case instructions of how to turn victory into defeat. Rather than referenda on the president, those races once again proved that the quality of candidates should never be discounted.

Tags: , , , , ,