Several races today have received an inordinate amount of attention as tests of public opinion regarding the policies and effectiveness of the (still) nascent Obama administration. The Democrats will lose two of the three races being hyped, and very possibly all three.
Many will argue that this will be a setback for Obama, especially considering the political capital he has expended in NY-23, and especially in the New Jersey Gubernatorial election.
This is, largely, bunk. While special elections (NY-23) or even Gubernatorial elections can be suggestive of public opinion towards national politics (the 1991 special election for the Senator of PA is a good example here), this is relatively rare in American politics. Gubernatorial elections are about state politics, not national politics. The incumbent in New Jersey, Jon Corzine, is in a statistical draw at the moment because he’s Jon Corzine. As Silver reports at 538, Corzine has not polled higher than 44%, and 53% of likely voters have an unfavorable opinion of the incumbent. This is a race about neither the Obama administration nor the relative popularity of Republicans in a blue state; rather it’s a race about the unpopular incumbent governor facing off against a lackluster challenger and a third-party spoiler.
In Virginia, an argument that this is a referendum on national rather than state politics is more credible, but where Silver assigns a 3-1 split between national and local, I’d go no more than 50-50, and only then if I were sniffing glue. Contextual factors specific to the state matter. Deeds, the Democratic nominee, participated in a three-way primary that, while he handily won, could not have helped position him against Bob McDonnell, the Republican nominee. Second, while these very two faced off for Virginia Attorney General in 2005, and McDonnell only won by something like 300-odd votes, McDonnell has spent the last four years as a state-wide elected official, while Deeds did not. I’m not suggesting that this gives McDonnell an insurmountable edge in the rematch, but it does give him a marginal (perhaps very marginal) advantage.
Finally, and most critically (for all three races), the composition of the electorate will be significantly different in November 2009 than it was in November 2008. When turnout decreases, as it does for off-year elections and especially for odd-year elections, the underlying composition of the electorate is altered at differing rates. Those with lesser levels of education, lower levels of income, lower age, and less attachment to place drop off at a much higher rate than the wealthy / educated / home owners / etc. It’s not terribly difficult to make the leap (actually, a small hop) from this to speculating (correctly) which party will benefit from the changed demographic composition of lower turnout.
As for NY-23, it’s a Republican district. Yes, there was significant ticket splitting in 2008, but it’s a strong Republican district: a Democrat wasn’t even on the ballot in 2002. Perhaps it is not a wingnut Republican district, but it looks likely that it will be represented by a credible wingnut following this election.
Indeed, as Silver points out, the Republicans in the two Gubernatorial races aren’t exactly hyping up their Republican street-cred. Granted neither are the Democrats especially so, but the Republicans are running from their label. If these were truly referenda on national politics, one would expect to see this distinction made more plain.
None of this is to suggest that Democrats still have it easy. The Republicans and right wingers are, as usual, far more adept at framing the narrative and mobilizing their support. Furthermore, the Democrats will lose seats in the House in 2010. But then aside from 1998 and 2002, the incumbent party in the White House always loses seats in the off-year Congressional elections. But, the results that I will wake up to tomorrow will not have me terribly concerned about the fate of the Obama administration, progressive (or even centrist / moderate) politics, or the fate of the free world. Furthermore, seeing how the New York Yankees can’t possibly have won the World Series by (my) tomorrow morning, it’s all good.
And all the better if Sarah Palin takes credit for any or all of these election results.
Me, I’ll be watching R-71 in Washington State and Prop 1 in Maine . . .