It will be weeks, if not months, before the analysis of 2009’s off year election results fade from the forefront of political commentary, particularly among conservatives. While the White House spin machine is content with downplaying the results as purely a function of local issues, conservatives have attempted to paint these contests as a referendum on the Obama Administration, or more bizarrely, the next step in “the American people taking back their country”. Most seasoned political observers know that off year, special and mid-term elections are characterized by low voter turnout and that party activists play a much greater role in determining the outcome. Viewed through that prism, the 2009 contests fall neatly into the paradigm of typical off year elections. Thus, the primary question is this: If the 2009 elections exhibit all of the characteristics of other off year elections, how can they logically be seen as a referendum on the Obama presidency or the opening volley in some great populist uprising. After all, if the American people are so disgusted with the Obama Administration, would they not be propelled to action by the rising chorus of conservative opposition and thereby get out to affect a change of course via the ballot box?
Analyzing the Gubernatorial races first, it is impossible to deny that local issues dominated. Democratic strategist Steve McMahon pointed out that property taxes and the cost of insurance rates, both of which are state level issues, are a big part of why Jon Corzine was not re-elected. While not directly involved, scandals played a role in Corzine’s demise as well, culminating in last summer’s round up of a cast of characters from politicians to rabbis. Corzine’s affiliation with the investment firm Goldman Sachs and his aloof political style did nothing to endear him to the people of New Jersey. As one NPR reporter put it: “Corzine never mastered the art of retail politics.” Political columnist A.P. Stoddard pointed on November the 3rd that if Corzine lost it would not be Barack Obama’s fault as in New Jersey; Obama had an approval rating in the vicinity of sixty percent in contrast to Corzine’s thirty nine percent. In the end, Corzine wound up losing by four percentage points to Chris Christie.
In Virginia, the issues that Republican Bob McDonnell focused on were improving the state’s economy, job creation and solving longstanding statewide transportation problems. Of these, only job creation could conceivably be linked back to the Obama Administration. While many voters are skeptical as to just how many jobs the Administration’s stimulus has created, most people still believe that Obama inherited a difficult situation, the blame for which cannot be laid at the door of his White House. In contrast to McDonnell, the Democratic challenger, Creigh Deeds was a relative unknown who struggled with name recognition till the very end.
What is notable about both races is that the Republican winners eschewed the currently fashionable conservative think tank groupthink that prescribes a political philosophy that hews to the hard right. As you will recall, following the defeat in the 2008 election cycle, most of the outspoken conservative commentators and theorists claimed that when the G.O.P. moved to the center it lost elections and that future electoral victory could only come by moving further to the right, the further, the better. Neither of the winners in New Jersey or Virginia dwelled on aspects of the “Culture Wars” nor did they resort to the now hackneyed rant about “a slide toward European Socialism.” Moreover, both Christie and McDonnell ran upbeat, politically moderate campaigns, devoid of the shrill histrionics that have come to dominate rightwing talk radio or the “political commentators” currently practicing their craft on Fox News. In contrast both Corzine and Deeds ran very negative campaigns to which the voting public now turns an increasingly deaf ear.
The other big issue is voter turnout. Political writer Paul Loeb summarizes the voter turnout as follows: “In exit polls, Virginia voters under 30 dropped from 21% of the 2008 electorate to 10% this year, and from 17% to 9% in New Jersey. Minority voting saw a similar decline. In both states, over half the Obama voters of a year ago simply stayed home, more than a million people in both Virginia and New Jersey. With this collapse of the Democratic base, even relatively modest Republican turnout could carry the day, and did.” That said, if this off year election is characterized by such low turn out levels, how can conservatives make an agrument that the “backlash is here”. Were the races in New Jersey and Virginia truly a referendum on Obama? If exit polls are any indication, they apparently were not. Edison Research provided a view as to whether or not Obama was a factor in people’s decision to vote by way of these exit poll results:
Support for Obama – 19%
Oppose Obama – 20%
Obama not a factor – 60%
Support for Obama – 18%
Oppose Obama – 24%
Obama not a factor – 55%
Thus in both races over 70% of those who answered exit polls said that Barack Obama did not play a role in their getting out to vote in what were essentially local elections. So much for the idea that the results of this past election constitute a rejection of Barack Obama, whose approval ratings have only moved up since the August Town Hall Follies. Meanwhile, the G.O.P. is polling its lowest approval rating since polling began and only twenty percent of Americans identify with the Republican Party.
Lets now turn to New York’s 23rd Election District, where a Republican has held the Congressional seat since 1871. It is in the 23rd, a district that has all of the demographics that favor the Republican Party, that the newly energized national Conservative movement chose to show just how effective it can be in both defeating a Democrat, upending a moderate Republican and turning the tide on Barack Obama. Prior to the election the district was besieged with conservatives from all over the country including volunteers from prominent conservative grass roots organizations like, The National Organization for Marriage, FreedomWorks, of Tea Party fame, and the Club For Growth, which spent one million dollars backing the conservative candidate Doug Hoffman. Such conservative luminaries like Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Dick Armey, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who predicted a conservative victory, tried in vain to nationalize the election. The cause of Mr. Hoffman was championed by both the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and by the NeoConservative organ, the Weekly Standard. In the face of this unprecedented conservative effort, Bill Owens won by endorsing the Obama Agenda, in an economically depressed region where unemployment has been north of ten percent for some time. This is the second time since the election of Barack Obama, that a Democrat endorsing Obama’s agenda has beaten a Republican with national conservative support in a district that demographically favored the G.O.P. The other instance is the special election for Kirsten Gillibrand’s vacated Congressional seat earlier this year.
What the outcome of the election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District shows is that beyond the world of right wing talk shows, the blogosphere, tea parties and grass roots activism, the appeal of the radical right may be much more limited than had been previously assumed. Could it be that the August Town Hall Follies with their tenor of rejection, vitriol and political dramatics have convinced few that conservatives have anything meaningful to offer an electorate that is essentially moderate, but that has been trending to the left over the previous two election cycles? It certainly leaves one to wonder just how effective Sarah Palin can be as a national political figure, seeing as she has yet to have any significant outcome on any race in which she has been involved. After all, isn’t she the darling of the base, the one individual that can really turn out a crowd?
Don’t get me wrong; there is a wake up call for the Democrats in the results of the 2009 elections and in 2010 there is no guarantee that they won’t lose more seats, the incumbent party usually does. If it happened to Ronald Reagan, it can certainly happen to Barack Obama. Obama has clearly lost support among independents and people are rightly concerned about the upward growth in federal spending. At the same time, Americans know that this is no ordinary time and that the situation we currently find ourselves in is not the work of the Obama Administration. But those jumping to the conclusion that 2009 is all that meaningful should heed the words of Purdue University Professor of Political Science, Bert Rockman: “I see no particular harbingers for 2010. While people are deeply unhappy about current conditions, they are also keenly suspicious of Republicans.” But the bigger takeaway from all of this is that as far as 2009 is concerned, rumors of Barack Obama’s demise have been greatly exaggerated and based on the above such claims can not be validated. Moreover the great citizens revolt to “take back their country” seems only to be alive and well in the delusional fantasyland of tea parties and birthers.
Steven J. Gulitti
New York City