The Bigger Picture
Published on November 12th in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
In this week’s column I will try to analyze the results of America’s off-year elections. Incidentally, the decision to award the Nobel Prize to Obama had absolutely no effect on these elections and President Obama’s performance during his first year in office had virtually no impact either.
The November 2009 general elections are called off-year elections because odd numbered year elections always follow the even numbered year elections for federal and national offices such as Congress and the Presidentcy. They are also mid-term elections for members of the US House of Representatives who must run for Congress every two years. As such, off-year and mid-term elections tend to be exclusively focused on local, city and state political concerns rather than national politics.
Because voter turnout tends to be much greater when national elections are held and because governments save money by combing local and state elections with federal elections, with few exceptions, most states and cities actually conduct their respective political contests in conjunction with the even numbered year’s federal election cycle. So even though most major cities like New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and San Francisco have mayoral and city council elections in off-years, the only states that do so are Virginia, New Jersey, Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky.
Given the lack of national political issues involved in last week’s elections, I must confess that I find it amazing as well as somewhat humorous that so much national and international media attention was focused on the state elections for governor in Virginia and New Jersey. Last time I checked no state governor or city mayor has ever taken part in the national domestic and foreign policy decisions made in Washington DC. So why on earth would anyone in the news media think the results from a couple of state and local elections are an indication about how voters feel about Congress and or President Obama’s performance thus far? Well, even though I don’t see much national impact from them, for what it’s worth here is my take on the results of last week’s American elections.
In Virginia, I suspect there was a least one Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, who was secretly smiling about Republican Bob McDonnell’s thumping of Democrat Craig Deeds in the race for governor. However, Terry McAuliffe wasn’t smiling because the man who defeated him in the Democratic primary, Craig Deeds, had lost the general election but rather because he had warned Deeds and Virginia Democrats that they would lose the governor’s race unless they made jobs and economic development the focus of their campaign. Craig Deeds preferred to focus on a Masters thesis McDonnell had written twenty years ago in which he expressed rather extreme anti-gay and anti-feminist sentiments. Instead, it was the Republican candidate, McDonnell who followed this script and the result was he won the governor’s race going away by a double digit margin.
By focusing on “old” political views that McDonnell said he no longer held, Deeds actually succeeded in reinforcing McDonnell’s support among older white social conservative voters who overwhelmingly supported his candidacy. On the other hand, the suburban white female voters Deeds was trying to alarm with his focus on these “old” social conservative views, by and large seemed to believe McDonnell’s contention that they no longer represented his position. McDonnell ran a very smart “centrist” political campaign that de-emphasized his social conservatism and pushed job creation instead.
Although President Obama did campaign on behalf of Deeds, he and his administration didn’t put a lot of effort into it and had distanced themselves from the contest in the months leading up to it. The bottom line is Craig Deeds ran a poor political campaign against a savvy Republican with a better campaign strategy and tactics. As for a referendum on President Obama, 60% of the voters said the President had no effect on their vote. Another 20% said Obama moved them to vote for McDonnell while another 20% said he pushed them into voting for Deeds, thus effectively canceling each other out.
A similar story played out in New Jersey where the Republican Attorney General, Chris Christie narrowly beat out incumbent Democratic governor, Jon Corzine for this statehouse executive job. Like McDonnell in Virginia, Christie focused on job creation and the need to reduce New Jersey’s high property taxes and avoided all discussion of his positions on social conservative issues. Governor Jon Corzine had also become very unpopular among a majority of New Jersey voters for his poor handling of the state’s budget, economic and tax problems and his effort to reduce property taxes during the summer were regarded as too little too late by many voters.
However, in contrast to Virginia, President Obama did campaign more aggressively on behalf of the embattled Democratic governor of New Jersey than he did for Craig Deeds in Virginia. But voters in New Jersy mirrored their counterparts in Virginia as regards the influence the President ended up having on their decision about who they would vote for with the vast majority saying it had no effect while the ones who said it did effectively cancelled each other out. So was the New Jersey governor’s race an indication of dissatisfaction with President Obama’s performance? I think not.
One thing that did stand out in both states however, was the demographic makeup of the electorate. Voter turnout in Virginia was about half (only 39% of eligible voters) in the governor’s race versus almost 75% in last year’s Presidential contest, while it was down by over a third in New Jersey. Younger voters who turned out in droves last year didn’t cast as many ballots this year and minority groups that accounted for 20% of the vote in last year’s Presidential race cast less than 15% of the votes in the governor’s race.
Although I think it would be foolish to read much into last week’s general election results, I will discuss some conclusions that both Democrats and Republicans can draw from them next week.