Will Tuesday be a referendum on Obama?

In my last couple of posts I explored the degree to which the national news media can be considered biased. I argued that if bias exists, it is not likely a function of journalists’ own political ideology, which admittedly tends for most to lean left, but instead reflects a “structural” bias rooted in the economics of the news business, particularly the need to maintain an audience and to generate stories within a rapidly accelerating and increasingly competitive news cycle. Today I want to explore an example of that structural bias in action, by focusing on the coverage of three elections: governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia, and the special congressional election in New York’s 23rd district, all to be held this coming Tuesday.  The dominant news narrative suggests that the outcome of these elections ought to be interpreted as a referendum on the Obama administration.  Consider David Broder’s take, which captures the prevailing narrative quite well: “The first key votes of the Obama era take place this week, not on the floor of the House or Senate, where health-care legislation still languishes, but in Virginia, New Jersey and northern New York state, where President Obama’s endorsements of threatened Democratic candidates will test his political clout a year after his own election.”  Or Michael Barone’s here: “In other words, the 2009 contests are a reasonably fair test of the strength and durability of the Democratic majority that Obama and his ticket-mates assembled in 2008, a majority that was only made possible by gains in hitherto Republican territory.”

This narrative serves journalists well, because it allows them to tie three otherwise disparate events into a unified story that provides an easy–to-assess gauge of Obama’s political clout.  Moreover, these races, according to this narrative, may provide early signs regarding the likely outcome of the 2010 midterm elections, as this story suggests:

“If Republicans seize the governors’ mansions in both states, the embarrassment will be acute. That is just what happened in both New Jersey and Virginia back in 1993 before the Republicans seized control of the US Congress the following year, dealing a crippling blow to the newly minted Democratic president of the time, Bill Clinton.”  So, according to the prevailing narrative,  the results are significant on several levels – as both an indicator of Obama’s clout and an early signal regarding the 2010 midterm elections.  Obama’s supporters, like E.J. Dionne, fearing Republican victories in all three races, are already trying to craft an explanation that fits within this broader narrative – namely, that Democrats who lose did so because they didn’t tie themselves closely enough to Obama (see story here).

On the other hand, the White House is already distancing itself from Tuesday’s anticipated results for fear that, in the event of a potential Republican sweep, the prevailing media narrative will be that Obama’s political clout has weakened. At the same time, however, Obama is making last minute visits to both Virginia and New Jersey in an effort to prevent that occurrence.

There is only one problem with this dominant narrative: it is almost certainly wrong.  Rather than a referendum on Obama’s political clout, these three races will be largely decided by factors that have nothing to do with Obama or his policies – although they will, in the case of the two governor’s races, have something to do with the presidency.

Consider the upstate New York congressional race first. In New York, the 23rd congressional district has been represented by a Republican dating back at least to 1993 (as far back as I’ve looked) and no Democrat has received as much as 40% of the popular vote in that time. Even in 2006, the year of the Democratic surge in the House, incumbent Republican John McHugh crushed his Democratic opponent in the 23rd district by more than 30%. Polls suggest that the current Democrat candidate, Bill Owens, is not going to top the 40% mark either, and that his only hope for victory is that Republican voters split their votes between conservative candidate Doug Hoffman and Republican Dede Scozzafavo, who in the last day pulled out of the race precisely to prevent that from happening.  Polls suggest there has been a last minute surge to Hoffman, as Republicans coalesce behind his candidacy.  In short, as those of you live across Lake Champlain can attest, this is Republican territory and has been for far longer than Obama has been president.  He can’t be blamed for Owens’s defeat. Similarly, if Owens were to win, it would have little to do with Obama and everything to do with the split vote among Republicans.   Indeed, Hoffman’s advertising, which I get to see from across the Lake, has been trying to tie Owens to Nancy Pelosi – not to Obama!  Moreover, should Owens win he would almost certainly be defeated in two years by a Republican candidate.

What about the two governors’ races – can’t they be reasonably viewed as a referendum on Obama and his policies?  Only tangentially, and not for the reasons suggested by the dominant news narrative. Both elections will likely turn on whether the depth of the anti-incumbent sentiment fueled by job loss and the economic downturn can offset demographic trends that have favored Democrats in recent years.  In New Jersey, the incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine has lost popularity after a divisive budget battle with the state legislature against the backdrop of the economic slump and charges of corruption and a crumbling road system. But what about Virginia?  Here there is no incumbent in the race, since the current Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, is prevented by state term limits from running again. That leaves an open race between Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell – surely this can be viewed as a referendum on Obama, particularly in a state that is trending Democratic and which he won in the 2008 election?

I think not. To understand my reasoning, note the following pattern: since 1977, the party that won the White House the year before has lost the Virginia governor’s race every time, regardless of the president’s party. (Virginia began its off year elections in 1857, New Jersey began its in 1847.) A year ago, Obama won the presidency, so if the pattern holds, the Republican candidate, McDonnell, ought to win election as Virginia’s next governor.  And, if polls are an accurate barometer, he is poised to win handily. If so, this would mean this pattern has held for nine straight gubernatorial elections. In political science, that’s as close to a “law” explaining a political phenomenon that one is going to find!  But what’s the basis of this pattern?  It primarily reflects structural dynamics derived from the different levels of voter turnout in presidential versus gubernatorial election years. Take a look at the following chart (source here):

Note that in presidential years, turnout is much higher than during the off-year elections. The decline in turnout in the governor’s race, I argue, occurs disproportionately among those voters who supported the winning presidential candidate during the presidential election.  It follows, then, that the opposing party candidate benefits from the lower turnout in the governor’s race the following year.  And that, I believe, is why McDonnell is likely to win on Tuesday: the decline in turnout from the previous year is likely to be greater among Democrats than Republicans.

If McDonnell wins in Virginia, then, it ought not to be seen as an indication that Obama’s political clout has lessened (or that Deeds failed to use Obama effectively). To believe that we need to believe that every president has suffered a similar loss in clout dating back to Carter in 1976.  A simpler explanation for the pattern is that turnout invariably favors the candidate of the out party – regardless of who the president might be.  This may not make for a compelling news story – it tells us nothing about Obama’s “clout”, or about what’s likely to happen in 2010.  But for a political scientist, it’s the story that matters.  (As further evidence that the Virginia and New Jersey results don’t tell us much about midterm results, note that both states elected Democrats in 2001 – and Republicans went on to gain seats in the 2002 congressional midterm elections)

Come Tuesday, then, when the news reports begin writing the final paragraph to the prevailing narrative that sees these elections as a referendum on Obama, you will know better.  It’s all about the fundamentals.

Addendum (7:40 pm): the New York Times is reporting that, in a surprise twist, Republican candidate  Dede Scozzafava is endorsing her Democratic opponent Bill Owens in New York’s 23d district race.   I have absolutely no idea what impact this endorsement will have on the race, but it does provide further evidence supporting Republican claims that Scozzafava’s views were out of step with Republican voters in the district.

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