The Independent Vote Yesterday

Discussions of the Republicans winning independent votes yesterday by the media are showing misconceptions about independent voters. First Read concludes “it’s about the middle, it’s about independents.” Their error is in assuming that independents and the middle are the same. Some independents certainly are centrists but many of us hold other views. There are liberal independents such as myself who have tended to vote Democratic on social issues in recent elections while not identifying with the Democratic Party for other reasons. Marc Ambinder points out that it was conservative independents who turned out to vote yesterday:

Yes, independents are moving to the GOP. That’s a big headline. Bad news for Dems, etc, etc. But. And this is important: these are conservative independents. Many disassociated with the GOP — at least in terms of what they tell pollsters — because of the GOP brand problems and because it’s cool to be independent in parts of the country and in parts of states. Don’t confuse “moderates” with “independents.”  Still, it seems clear that for people who call themselves independent, Republican messages wear better than Democrats.

Steve Benen discussed the problem of referring to independents as a group with a single set of views and pointed back to this analysis of independents published in 2007.

The independents who voted yesterday did tend to prefer Republican messages as Ambinder stated,  but that very well could be because it was conservative independents who turned out to vote while the types of independents who tend to vote Democratic were less motivated to vote. An argument might be made that Democrats could do better among independents by being more moderate. It is also likely that Democrats would do  a better job of motivating more liberal independents to turn out to vote for them by providing them with reasons to back them, such as by showing success in addressing problems such as health care and climate change.

Another problem is that identification as an independent, as well as identification with parties, is fluid. There are now many moderates and moderate conservatives who previously called considered themselves Republican but identify less with the party after its move to the far right. Similarly many people who previously called themselves independents have joined the far larger tent offered by the Democratic Party.

It is notable that the two victories by Republicans in New Jersey and Virginia were by Republicans who moved towards the center. As I noted previously, New Jersey Republican Chris Christie even tried to tie himself to Obama, presumably to bring in the votes of independents who support Obama.

Ultimately any interpretation of the voting by independents carries the same problems at extrapolating the results from yesterday as I discussed in the previous post. Local issues and candidates also influenced the votes of independents in these elections and this does not provide a basis for predicting how independents will vote in 2010 and 2012.

More on the 2009 election results:

Local Elections and National Politics

Spinning Defeat as Victory

Democrat Wins In New York 23rd

Local Elections and National Politics

I’ve already commented on the limited meaning of yesterday’s elections. The argument that all politics is local is over used and often false, but yesterday was one of the times when local politics was more important than national trends. The Wall Street Journal pointed out how difficult it is to draw conclusions from such off-year elections:

But it can be difficult to draw broader conclusions from off-year contests, which often turn on local issues.

Going back to 1989, one party swept the off-year gubernatorial elections five times. Three of those times, that party also won the following year’s congressional elections; twice it did not.

In 1993, Republicans Christie Todd Whitman in New Jersey and George Allen in Virginia captured their states’ governor’s mansions. The following year brought the dramatic Republican takeover of Congress.

In 2001 gubernatorial races, Democrats Jim McGreevey in New Jersey and Mark Warner in Virginia swept to victory. The next year, Republicans gained seats in the House and Senate.

In June 2006, Republicans won a special House race in California, and Republicans crowed that the Democrats’ much-ballyhooed momentum was a fantasy. But in the fall elections that year, Democrats captured 31 seats and retook the House for the first time in 12 years.

“I don’t think they say anything,” Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University, said of off-year elections. “The sample is too small and the issues are local.”

First Read even shows that New Jersey and Virginia are following long standing trends:

After a while, you can’t dismiss these trends: Yesterday became the NINTH-consecutive time (since 1977) that the party that won the White House lost Virginia’s gubernatorial contest the following year. And yesterday became the SIXTH-consecutive time (since 1989) that the party controlling the White House lost New Jersey’s gov race. Whether due to buyer’s remorse, happenstance, or a combination of the two, those trends should give all us pause in making broad statements about last night’s two contests — and what they mean for the White House, the midterms, or the next presidential contest.

An analysis from CNN also points out the importance of local politics:

Victories in New Jersey and Virginia Tuesday provided a major shot in the arm for the Republican Party heading into the 2010 elections, but the Democratic losses of these two governorships should not be interpreted as a significant blow to President Obama.

While the economy and jobs were the chief concern for voters in both states, 26 percent of New Jersey residents said property taxes was also a major issue, while another 20 percent mentioned corruption, according to CNN exit polling. In a similar CNN survey taken in Virginia, health care was the most important issue for 24 percent of the voters, while 15 percent named taxes and transportation was mentioned by 7 percent.

Further proof that this election was not solely focused on Obama, 56 percent of Virginians said that the president was not a factor when it came down to their vote. In New Jersey, that number increased to 60 percent of the people who went to the polls on Tuesday.

Perhaps this was the problem for Virginia Sen. Creigh Deeds and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine.

Neither Democratic candidate was Obama; neither was a great spokesman for “change;” and Democratic strategists and grassroots activists said each candidate failed to give independents a reason to support them.

One problem for the Democrats, which could also be a problem in the off-year elections in 2010, is that the Democrats won big in 2008 by bringing in many new voters who are less likely to vote in off-year elections. CNN notes:

In New Jersey, while Corzine overwhelmingly won among African-Americans, only 14 percent of the vote was black; young people, age 18 to 29, made up 9 percent of the vote and 36 percent of them backed Republican Chris Christie. Meanwhile, 60 percent of independents supported Christie as well.

The numbers were worse for Deeds in Virginia. Ten percent of the electorate was age 18 to 29 and Republican Bob McDonnell captured 54 percent of this voting bloc. Deeds overwhelmingly carried the African-American vote that made up16 percent of people who turned out on Tuesday, while 66 percent of voters who identified themselves as independents backed McDonnell.

The voters in off-year elections are older and whiter than those in general elections. In the short term this helps the Republicans in off-year elections. On the other hand, it does not bode well in the long run for Republicans to be dependent upon declining demographic groups.

This year’s elections also raised a number of issues regarding interference in national races by the national party. I’ve already discussed the ramifications of conservative Republicans opposing a moderate candidate here and here. In contrast, New Jersey represents a case which could be used as reason for the national party to get involved in getting an incumbent not to run–not due to ideology but due to being a weak candidate. Corzine has had approval ratings in the 30’s and the race was clearly a referendum on Corzine and not Obama. Nate Silver pointed out:

Voters in Tuesday’s election approved of Obama’s performance 57 percent to 43 percent, according to exit polling. It was Corzine they didn’t like; 27 percent of the voters who approved of Obama nevertheless found someone other than the Democratic incumbent to vote for.

Support for Obama was not enough to make up for disapproval of Corzine. During the campaign Republican candidate Chris Christie had even tried to tie himself to Obama in campaign videos which showed Obama.

With Obama’s campaign visits to New Jersey not being of any value, I’ve seen suggestions that he might have better used his time going to New York to help the Democratic candidate beat Michael Bloomberg. A visit by Obama might have made a difference considering that Bloomberg won by a closer margin than expected, primarily due to many voters objecting to the manner by which he repealed term limits in order to run. While it might be true that Obama’s intervention could have led to the defeat of Bloomberg, I question if Obama had any interest in doing so. Bloomberg has been supportive of Obama and I bet Obama is perfectly happy seeing Bloomberg remain as mayor of New York.

Spinning Defeat as Victory

We expect that when a political party has a victory they might over-emphasize its meaning and when they lose they will play it down. That’s just the nature of the game. Back in 2001 the  Republican National Committee argued that their losses that year had no bearing on the midterm election to take place a year later. As is very often the case with such elections, they turned out to be right. I don’t have any proof, but my bet is that the same year the Democrats were claiming that their wins were significant. This year the Republicans are taking the opposite line and are playing up their wins in Virginia and New Jersey. While these wins have no real national significance, a win is still a win. While I disagree about the significance, I cannot blame GOP leaders for bragging. What makes no sense is to brag about a loss.

I already discussed the Democratic pick up in New York’s 23rd Congressional district. Many conservative blogs such as Red State are claiming a victory. Erick Erickson argues that  conservatives “have demonstrated to the GOP that it must not take conservatives for granted.” If the point was to show that conservatives could prevent a Republican from winning by supporting a third party candidate there was no need for this exercise. Anyone would have granted them this possibility.

I am sure that Democrats will be very happy to see conservative Republicans adopt a strategy of challenging moderate Republicans in such a manner and allowing Democrats to win. Of course for those of us who hope to see the return of a viable two party system without one of the parties being dominated by extremists, this is an unfortunate strategic decision by the far right. Unfortunately it has been clear for several years that the far right has won the civil war for control of the GOP and that their goal is purging all members who do not share their extremist views.

If all the support from Republican spokesmen such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, along with intervention from Sarah Palin and the Club of Growth, had resulted in a conservative pick up they would have cause for celebration. Instead one of the rare remaining Republican seats in the northeast has gone Democratic for the first time in over a century. The Republicans had managed to hold the seat in recent years with a moderate Republican. Now they have prevented another moderate Republican from winning  but the result was to give the seat to the Democrats.

Republicans have been spinning yesterday’s results to claim that this will hinder the passage of health care reform. Their two new Republican governors have no votes on health care reform but the real result of yesterday’s elections is that the Democrats now have two more Democratic Congressmen than they had before the election. That’s two more votes which might be cast in favor of the bill.

Some Girls Just Want a Boyfriend with Health Benefits

(Hat tip to Jessica S. for the video via Facebook.)

Democrat Wins In New York 23rd

With all the noise from the media about the handful of elections on Tuesday I do not want to say much to suggest more significance to the elections than they actually have–which is damn close to zero with regards to forecasting the future prospects of either party. Exit polls demonstrated that the races were in no way a referendum on Obama. That said, a comment must be made on the race in New York’s 23rd Congressional district. Like the other elections, it has near zero predictive value. It’s significance is not in predicting the future but in demonstrating where we are at today. This seat, which had been Republican for the past century, was won by Democrat Bill Owens.

For the benefit of anyone who  might not have been following the race, a special election was held because of Barack Obama appointing the former Congressman, John M. McHugh, to be Secretary of the Army.  Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava faced strong opposition from the right wing for positions such as supporting abortion rights, gay rights, and the stimulus package. Supporting both individual liberty and preserving our economy while keeping the country out of a depression was simply an agenda which few conservatives could go along with.

Scozzafava became a target of leading spokesmen of the national Republican Party such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Many Republican leaders, including Sarah Palin, backed Conservative Party candidate Douglas Hoffman. Hoffman even referred to Glenn Beck as his mentor.

The election spurred debate in the Republican Party as a  handful of Republicans questioned the sanity of opposing more liberal Republicans. Newt Gingrich backed Scozzafava while she was in the race, recognizing that having moderate candidates in more liberal areas is the only way to rebuild a majority. Over the weekend Scozzafava dropped out and endorsed Owens. (Meanwhile those who watched the fantasy Fox coverage were initially told that Scozzafava was backing Hoffman.)

In the end conservatives got the satisfaction of refusing to support a RINO but the consequence was losing a previously safe Republican district. This provides an example of why, despite a dead cat bounce in a couple of gubernatorial elections this year, the Republican Party is rapidly becoming a fringe regional party. Rather than understanding how their extremism is dooming the party, Hoffman quickly claimed the election was stolen. He even blamed Acorn, which is certain to lead to many right wingers believing his claims.