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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Spinning the results of the 2009 election

It wasn't surprising to see how quickly both sides tried to spin the results of the 2009 elections in their favor. While conservatives were touting the gubernatorial results in Virginia and New Jersey, liberals were celebrating the two-seat pickup in the US. House, especially the NY-23 victory.

It's both funny and sad that both sides are so predictable in their spin but neither is likely to be an accurate interpretation of the results.


The SPIN: Republicans winning two new gubernatorial seats is a clear referendum on Obama, and this spells doom for the democrats in future elections.  Even L. Brooks Patterson called it a backlash against Obama, saying “That’s clearly what it was...It speaks volumes."

The REALITY: It really doesn't mean that at all. Gubernatorial races don't give much, if any indication of how a state will vote in national elections. Patterson should know this since even our own state's local history shows it to be true.  Despite electing Republican John Engler three times as Governor, Michigan went Blue in every following Presidential election. California has a Republican governor and is considered a democratic stronghold in presidential elections. Likewise, Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, another "safe" blue state.

Virginia is different though, and to an extent I have to agree that some votes there were likely votes against Obama. However, I strongly disagree that it's statistically significant or will play a role in national races in 2010 or 2012. Virginia's gubernatorial races are odd for several reasons, primarily:

1) They are held in an "off-off" year where no national races are held in the state.
2) Incumbents are legally prohibited from seeking re-election (though they are permitted to run again in the future)

So having to choose between two new candidates in off years likely leads to much lower voter turnout than you would get in other states.The elections always follow the presidential election by a year, and who is more likely to turnout to vote, the party who won or the party who lost the last election?  With low voter turnout, the shift in attitude from the previous election can have a major impact, and in Virginia, history seems to show it does have such an impact. Someone on was nice enough to compile this list, so I copied it here for you to see.

1976: Carter (D) elected President
1977: Dalton (R) elected Governor of Virginia

1980: Reagan (R) elected President
1981: Robb (D) elected Governor of Virginia

1984: Reagan (R) re-elected President
1985: Baliles (D) elected Governor of Virginia

1988: Bush I (R) elected President
1989: Wilder (D) elected Governor of Virginia

1992: Clinton (D) elected President
1993: Allen (R) elected Governor of Virginia

1996: Clinton (D) re-elected President
1997: Gilmore (R) elected Governor of Virginia

2000: Bush II (R) elected President
2001: Warner (D) elected Governor of Virginia

2004: Bush II (R) re-elected President
2005: Kaine (D) elected Governor of Virginia

2008: Obama (D) elected President
2009: McDonnell (R) elected Governor of Virginia

History has been following a pretty simple pattern in Virginia for the last 8 election cycles... so while it may be fair to say Virginia gubernatorial races reflect animosity toward the sitting President, it would be equally fair to say they have been doing it for some time now and are not indicative of larger movements in the national political scene. Three of the six Presidents listed above won reelection despite the Virginia results, so to suggest this one election spells doom for the democrats is beyond stretching.


The SPIN: Bill Owens (D) winning NY-23 over Doug Hoffman (C) destroyed the Tea Party movement.

The REALITY: The Tea Party movement isn't going away any time soon. A democrat winning over a third party candiate is hardly Earth-shatting. The only reason the congressional race in NY-23 got any attention at all was because it was a rather slow news cycle for an election and Sarah Palin decided to throw her celebrity behind Hoffman. While NY-23 was considered a Republican stronghold prior to the election, Democrats picking it up won't change the overall course Congress is heading down at this point, and Owens' victory is more a reflection on a growing divide within the Republican party than an overall rejection of the Tea Party movement.

Owens was not expected to win the district in the original showdown with Dede Scozzafava (R), who was classified by critics and supporters alike as fiscally conservative, but socially liberal. Sarah Palin decided to endorse 3rd party candidate Hoffman because he was more conservative, and other big name Republicans followed. The problem was Hoffman was not a very charismatic candidate, especially when under the tight gaze of the national media, he did not live in the district and was quickly criticized for showing a lack of understanding of the issues facing the district. Scozzafava withdrew from the race and, likely feeling rejected by her own party, threw her support behind her former opponent.

In short, Owens won because the Republican stronghold was divided between conservatives and moderates, not because of backlash against the Tea Party movement.  It was a poorly planned move by Republicans that backfired.

Of course, there are still some who touted Hoffman's loss as a "win" for the movement because it was a close race. But it shouldn't have even been close. Scozzafava was heavily favored to win and polls taken prior to Palin's endorsement of Hoffman showed her with a significant lead over Owens. Republicans had the district locked up, which is probably why some saw it as an opportunity to shift the party in an even more conservative direction. Even after withdrawing, Scozzafava still received 5.5% of the vote, while Owens bested Hoffman by only 3.5%.

This was not an uprising of Democrats trying to send a message to Tea Party activists, this was a house divided that, clearly, cannot stand. However, it does not mean the end of the Tea Party movement. If anything, it means Republicans will have to work to bridge the gaps between the conservative base and the party's moderates leading into the 2010 elections.

A lot has changed in the last 12 months and it's likely a lot more will change in the upcoming year that will influence the next election. Trying to predict the results based on what happened in four local races this year is a waste of time.



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