Tipping Points, Health Care and Tuesday’s Results

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I want to follow up on my earlier post regarding Tuesday’s election, because evidently there is still confusion regarding what actually explains the recurring pattern in which the president’s party loses the off year gubernatorial elections, and the impact those losses are likely to have this year on pending legislation, particularly health care. It turns out that even those who recognize the historical pattern behind Tuesday’s results are still drawing the wrong lessons. Consider the following from Taegen Goddard, who writes for the Political Wire “In both states, it seems pretty clear that the voters tend to show their disappointment with the new President by voting for the other party, no matter which party controls the White House. Most likely many people had some expectations from the newly (re)elected President, didn’t see them satisfied and wanted to send the incumbent a message. The correlation (12 out of 12 and 14 out of 16  [he’s referring to combined results in Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races dating back to the 1980’s]) is too strong for just chance. This year’s results should be interpreted in this light. While the results are not encouraging for President Obama, they are hardly surprising.”

But let’s be clear here: that’s not what I believe happened.  Voters in the two governors’ races did NOT, in the main, express their disappointment with Obama. The pattern primarily recurs because turnout dips in the off year election, not because people invariably become disappointed with whoever is president. In fact, this pattern happens even when presidents are very popular nationally. Keep in mind that turnout dropped by almost a million voters in both states compared to the presidential election year. In short, the results primarily reflect a smaller voting pool that – because the president is not on the ticket – tends to include fewer voters who supported the president’s party in the presidential election.

Now, what impact will these results have on pending legislation?  Consider the following two observations from writers for the Wall St. Journal and the Washington Post.  Kim Strassel writes in the WSJ: “So long as the president looked strong, those Blue Dogs and freshmen and swing-state senators would stick. Show them any sign of weakness, however, and rattled Dems would begin to care more about their own re-elections than they did their president. Tuesday, the White House hit that tipping point.”

In the Post, Perry Bacon reports that all 177 House Republicans plan to vote against the majority party’s health care bill.  Bacon writes: “The universal opposition to the health-care bill, which Congress could vote on as soon as Saturday, was long expected, but Republican wins in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races on Tuesday further emboldened the GOP in its stance.”

Tipping point?  Further emboldened?  Is Bacon suggesting that had the Democrats won the two governor’s races, some Republicans would have considered voting FOR the Democratic health care bill?  Is it really the case, as Strassel suggests, that Tuesday’s results suddenly reminded House Democrats to put their own reelection ahead of the president’s political interests? Remember back in January, when Obama was still being hailed as an agent of change, and with his popularity in the mid-60% range, he still couldn’t wring a single Republican House vote in support of his stimulus bill! (And we often forget that 11 House Democrats opposed the initial House stimulus bill and seven voted against the final conference bill.  Of the 11 House Democrats voting against the stimulus bill, 9 represent districts in which McCain beat Obama in 2008.)

My point is that the Republicans have already demonstrated a willingness to oppose legislation that they viewed as against their party principles. And blue dog Democrats have been battling the Democratic Party leadership long before Tuesday in an effort to moderate the fiscal impact of health care reform. The 40+ House Democrats representing districts that voted for McCain in 2008 didn’t need Tuesday’s results to understand what was at stake for them electorally.  (Note as well that some thirty-plus Republicans represent districts that went for Obama in 2008, and they too need to calibrate their votes accordingly.)

What we are seeing, I think, is another illustration of the structural bias in media coverage that tries to fit Tuesday’s results into a larger storyline.  But the evidence to support the claim that Tuesday’s results emboldened Republicans to oppose Obama and decreased support from moderate Democrats is, in my view, weak.   The political dynamics these articles cite were already in play.

With key votes coming up on health care, I’m going to try in my next post to see if we can make some sense of the politics of this legislation.

Meanwhile, here’s the data I promised on the New Jersey governors races dating back to the first election after the 1947 constitutional reform in that state which changed the governor’s term from three years to four.  You can see that the off-year loss pattern is a relatively more recent phenomenon.  Since 1949, it has held true in 10 of 16 gubernatorial races, including the last six in a row.  Frankly, I’m not sure why the pattern did not appear earlier, but my guess is that local issues in some of these years swamped the independent impact of the turnout factor.  But I’m open to anyone’s suggestions who knows something about New Jersey politics… .

Governor Election Party President’s Party Fits Pattern?
Alfred E. Driscoll 1949 Republican Democrat YES
Robert B. Meyner 1953 Democrat Republican YES
Meyner 1957 Democrat Republican YES
Richard J. Hughes 1961 Democrat Democrat NO
Hughes 1965 Democrat Democrat NO
William T. Cahill 1969 Republican Republican NO
Brendan Byrne 1973 Democrat Republican YES
Byrne 1977 Democrat Democrat NO
Thomas Kean 1981 Republican Republican NO
Kean 1985 Republican Republican NO
James Florio 1989 Democrat Republican YES
Christine Whitman 1993 Republican Democrat YES
Whitman 1997 – Resigned in 2001 Republican Democrat YES
Donald T. DiFrancesco 2001 (Appointed) Republican
James McGreevey 2001-04 Resigned Democrat Republican YES
Richard J. Codey 2004 (Appointed) Democrat Republican
Jon Corzine 2005 Democrat Republican YES
Chris Christie 2009 Republican Democrat YES

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