What Really Explains Tuesday’s Elections Results?

What explains Tuesday’s election results?  I had suggested in my posts leading up to the election that the outcomes would not be a referendum on the Obama presidency, but instead would be driven primarily by combination of local factors interacting with a historical pattern of low turnout in the off-year elections that tends to disadvantage the president’s party.  Journalists, in contrast – although often acknowledging the importance of these structural and local factors – nonetheless found it difficult to resist interpreting the results within a single dominant narrative that focused on Obama.  Although not universally accepted, this was the overriding theme of most of the post-election coverage that I read.

Let’s look at the evidence. Most significantly, we see that the outcome in both the New Jersey and Virginia governors’ races follows the historical pattern dating back to at least the 1970’s that I traced out in my earlier posts: the candidate of the president’s party – whether a Democrat or a Republican  – lost the election.  That makes six times in a row in New Jersey, and 7 out of the last 10 elections there that this has happened. In Virginia, the pattern is even stronger: in the last NINE governor’s races dating back to 1977, the candidate of the president’s party has lost (see chart below).

Why does this happen?  I said it is partly because turnout tends to be down in off-year elections, particularly among the president’s party.  Did that happen again this year?  Yes it did.  Let’s look first at New Jersey, where the Democrat incumbent Jon Corzine lost to Republican challenger Chris Christie.  In the 2008 presidential race, Democrats turned out in greater numbers than Republicans in New Jersey, by 44-28%, (with 28% independents). Last Tuesday the Democratic dominance in a historically “blue” state receded by 6%, to 41-31%, with no change in the overall proportion of independents. In total, 2.3 million people voted on Tuesday, down from 2008’s presidential election total of almost 3.9 million. So, again, we see the impact of structural factors in the form of lower voter turnout particularly among the president’s party coming into play.

But how do I know that, despite the low voter turnout, this wasn’t a referendum on Obama?  In New Jersey there are two pieces of evidence: first, according to exit polls, 57% of those who voted approved of the job Obama is doing as president.  Nonetheless, 19% of those who signaled their approval for the president still voted for the Republican, Christie. Second, 47% of those who voted thought corruption and property taxes were the two major issues driving their vote, and they went predominantly for Christie by about 67-25% in both cases.  Another 32% thought it was the economy and jobs, and here Corzine won, albeit by a smaller margin, 58-36%.  We see then, that local issues tended to dominate the thinking of Christie’s supporters more than Corzine’s; they weren’t voting against Obama or his policies.

We see the same story in Virginia. Here, fortunately, the exit polls asked voters for whom they had voted in the 2008 presidential election. Remember, Obama carried Virginia in 2008 over McCain by 52.6-46.3%, and the exit polls put the proportion of Democratic versus Republican voters then at 39-33%. But on Tuesday, it was McCain supporters who turned out in force, 51-43%, over Obama supporters, and the party proportions were almost reversed, with Republicans outnumbering Democratic voters 37-33%.   Turnout, moreover, was down from 2008; then more than 3.7 million people voted while on Tuesday turnout totaled a bit less than 2 million.  We see, then, much as I predicted, that structural factors linked to the historical pattern of lower turnout by the president’s supporters played a huge role in McDonnell’s victory, just as they did in New Jersey.  And McDonnell did best among those voters (47%) who thought the dominant issue was jobs and the economy and those (15%) who believed it was taxes – both issues that have a strong local dimension.

Here, to give you some historical sense of the underlying pattern that partly explains these results, are the outcomes of the Virginia governor’s races dating back to 1977. Pay particular attention to columns 3 and 4 which list the governor’s and president’s party affiliations.

Year Winner Party President’s Party %Vote
1977 John Dalton Republican Democrat (Carter) 55.9%
1981 Charles Robb Democrat Republican (Reagan) 53.5%
1985 Gerald Baliles Democrat Republican (Reagan) 55.2%
1989 Doug Wilder Democrat Republican (Bush I) 50.2%
1993 George Allen Republican Democrat (Clinton) 58.3%
1997 Jim Gilmore Republican Democrat (Clinton) 55.8%
2001 Mark Warner Democrat Republican (Bush II) 52.2%
2005 Tim Kaine Democrat Republican (Bush II) 51.7%
2009 Bob McDonnell Republican Democrat (Obama) 58.7%

Isn’t this cool?  Don’t you love political science?

I will discuss the New York congressional outcome in a separate post, but by way of foreshadowing my comments, I believe that result also turned on factors not directly related to Obama or his policies.

A final point: Republicans, and not a few journalists, are suggesting that Tuesday’s results will make it more difficult for Obama and congressional Democrats to pass his major legislative initiatives, particularly health care, in part because “blue dog” moderate Democrats will think twice about the implications of supporting potentially costly government initiatives.  I think this is wrong for two related reasons. First, Tuesday’s results turned primarily (although not exclusively) on local factors, against the backdrop of low voter turnout.  More importantly, however, moderate Democrats already have concerns about supporting these major legislative initiatives – two governors’ races did not provide any additional information in this regard. In other words, the independent impact of the Democrats’ losses in these two races on major policy debates in Congress is likely to be nil because it does nothing to change the calculations of legislators in other states who must decide whether to support these bills. Admittedly, it’s hard to see this in the blizzard of media stories regarding the alleged “momentum” and “signals” conveyed by these races.  By now, however, you should understand that this prevailing narrative fits the media’s structural needs to create an entertaining, newsworthy storyline.

The real story, I submit – and one that I find most exciting – is how well these outcomes seem to fit within the long-term historical pattern of election outcomes in off-year elections.  It suggests that we (political scientists) understand some of the underlying dynamics of these races – dynamics that tend to get lost in the punditry-driven hype surrounding the latest elections results.

It may be less newsworthy, but for a political scientist, it’s pretty exciting!

p.s. Note also my response to Olivier’s query in the comments section to my previous post.  Thanks also to my New Jersey and New York students who filled me in on some of the local issues in both states (as noted above, I’ll deal with New York separately).

One comment

  1. Notice also that newer voters had the steepest drop-off in percentage turning out. The 18-29 age group voted Democratic in very similar proportions to 2008, but they made up much less of the electorate, according to the exit polls:

    New Jersey, 18-29 year olds
    2008: 17% of voters
    2009: 9% of voters

    New Jersey, 65+ voters
    2008: 15% of voters
    2009: 23% of voters

    Virginia, 18-29 year olds
    2008: 21% of voters
    2009: 10% of voters

    Virginia, 65+ voters
    2008: 11% of voters
    2009: 21% of voters

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