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.

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  1. 1
    Fritz says:

    It seems really possible to me that carbon cap & trade may be dead for this Congress.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    It very well might be. Health care is so big that it could make it impossible to deal with another major controversial issue going into an election year. It is also possible that a political victory on health care might give the Democrats more momentum and greater willingness to tackle big issues. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.

  3. 3
    Fritz says:

    Also there is a market for the health care issue.  Setting up an expensive energy tax, especially with the sun having gone into a politically-inconvenient quiescent phase, will lead to negative campaign ads next year that a child could write.

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