At least they could have waited for the election results

The off-year elections are still a day away but that hasn’t prevented pundits from already doing exactly what I predicted they would do after the election: interpreting the (anticipated) results as a referendum on Obama’s policies and as a bellwether for the future of American politics.  Steve Lombardi, at, suggests in a story today that, “many may be under-interpreting the meaning of a GOP sweep tomorrow. Yes, a lot can and will happen between now and Election Day 2010, but make no mistake: Republicans are likely to sweep all three races tomorrow and that does say something about the direction of the country and voter perceptions of the economy.” That’s right. We are under-interpreting the results.  Lombardo goes on to write, “Obama is personally popular but voters remain unsure of the effectiveness of his policies. That is why his personal popularity does not necessarily translate into help for either Corzine or Deeds. Poll after poll shows that the President is well-liked but voters are not yet convinced that his policies are moving the country in the right direction.”

I don’t doubt that Republicans may sweep all three races, and that a large part of their victories will be due to voter dissatisfaction with the economy.  But, for the reasons I laid out in my last post, I don’t agree with Lombardi’s implicit assumption that the elections will turn on voters’ views of Obama, or his policies.  Rather than repeat those points, I want to extend them here by responding to a couple of your emails regarding my claim that these results are more likely to be driven by structural factors, particularly the ebb in voter turnout characteristic of off-year elections.  You asked:

  1. If the disproportionate decline in turnout from the president’s supporters largely explains the tendency for his party to lose the off-year election, shouldn’t we also see that trend in New Jersey?

In fact, we do – I probably should have discussed this in my last post.  The same pattern has held, by my quick count, in the last five NJ governor’s races, and in 6 of the last 9.  I haven’t gone back before the 1973 race, which is when I started my Virginia count.

  1. If the structural explanation holds true, shouldn’t we see this type of pattern – the president’s party losing the governorship in Virginia and New Jersey – before the 1970s’ as well?

Not in Virginia – remember that until the 1960’s, Virginia was part of the solid Democratic south – no Republican could expect to hold state wide office.  If I get a chance, I’ll try to look up the data for New Jersey prior to 1974.

Interestingly, the House special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district provides something of a test for my thesis that local fundamentals, and not views toward Obama, will drive the results.  Obama won this largely Republican district in 2008, 52%-47%, and as of this past Oct. 31, he was still very popular there. According to a Siena poll released on that date,  59% of those surveyed had a favorable view of Obama, with only 37% viewing him unfavorable.  And yet Republican Doug Hoffman was up 5% over his Democratic rival. How can this be?  A PPP poll released today suggests the answer – they polled likely voters and found that “While Barack Obama won a narrow victory in NY-23 last year, those planning to vote in this race supported John McCain by a 51-43 margin. Obama’s approval rating with likely voters is just 39%.”  While the Siena poll is also of likely voters, they start with a random digit dial survey, and then pare the respondents down.  PPP, in contrast, surveys only people who are on the registered voter list, so are more likely to be surveying those who will actually vote.  If I’m reading these two polls correctly, then, the PPP poll is more likely to be capturing those likely to vote tomorrow – and among that subset of voters, Obama is less popular.   This doesn’t mean his lack of popularity will cost Owens the race – it means that the voting pool for tomorrow’s special election will consist of a higher proportion of McCain voters who are predisposed to vote Republican (or Conservative in this case).

If Hoffman wins, then, it will be in part because of the drop in turnout among those who voted for the president the year before – the same factors that have historically hurt the president’s party in the off-year governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey.  In contrast to what pundits would have you believe, one cannot blame tomorrow’s results on voter backlash to Obama or his policies, and one certainly can’t use them to forecast the 2010 midterm results.

I’ll try to post a quick response to the results tomorrow night.   Meanwhile, when the chorus begins warming up with the bellwether song, remember my warning… .

One comment

  1. I spent some time scanning actual media takes on today’s votes. It’s clear to me that these elections don’t hinge on Obama’s influence, but journalists can easily make this claim because Obama’s actions play into it. Consider the opening line of a Wall Street Journal/AP story today:

    “In a very early test of President Barack Obama’s political influence, two states are choosing whether to continue Democratic rule while voters elsewhere elect a handful of congressmen and big-city mayors.”

    The article continues:

    “Elected just a year ago, the president has spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to ensure that Democrats win governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey and pick up a GOP-held congressional seat in upstate New York.”

    Following from these actions, the article argues that Obama has raised the stakes, setting himself up for embarrassment if the Democrats lose. Although Obama’s campaigning suggests that the races are important, it is different to argue that Obama is wagering political capital that he risks losing if the GOP sweets these three races.

    Legislative outcomes, however, depend on the votes of Senators and Congressmen, determined largely by the preferences of their constituents, which are unlikely to change based on votes in other districts. But does the media narrative’s pervasiveness, in itself, have an impact on Obama’s effectiveness in Washington? I think not, but many articles take this position. A loss in New Jersey, Adam Nagourney at the NYT argues, “is going to produce a wave of “Obama is in trouble” commentary that, justified or not, will hinder the president at the very moment he needs all the clout he can muster to get bills on health care and global warming through Congress.”

    Nagourney seems willing to consider that “Obama is in trouble” commentary may or may not be justified, but he doesn’t consider that the commentary, following the same logic, may or may not hinder the president’s legislative agenda. If he doesn’t think the potential electoral losses in themselves signal weakness for Obama, he’s putting a lot of stock in the power of the media narrative.

    What’s really interesting to me is that journalists recognize many of the fundamental factors that Professor Dickinson discusses, but in their desire to lead stories with Obama, certainly a more recognizable name than any of the candidates on today’s ballots, they subordinate these factors. The same WSJ article later on argues “both states [have] long histories of electing governors from a political party opposite that of the president,” but this is in paragraph 10, sandwiched between comments about White House setbacks.

    The most sensible media opinion I saw today came from BBC News: “While local issues have been paramount in these races, a win could boost party morale ahead of 2010 mid-term ballots.” They have the facts right, but can’t help but be swayed toward the more compelling narrative.

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