Who Really Won Tuesday’s Elections? Parsing the Spin

Who really won Tuesday’s elections?

A. The Democrats did.   Despite all the talk of the coming Republican wave, they held onto John Murtha’s 12th congressional district Pennsylvania seat, with Democrat Mark Critz actually doing better than polls expected, besting Republican Tim Burns 52.6%-45.1% despite a concerted Republican effort to take this seat.  In Senate races in both Pennsylvania and Kentucky, meanwhile, Democrat turnout easily trumped Republican turnout, and it was up in Arkansas over previous Democratic primaries – a good sign that Democrats are poised to come out in force the upcoming midterms.

B. The Republicans did.  Once again, President Obama – the titular head of the Democrat party – pulled his now familiar Al Pacino impersonation, issuing the kiss of death to a Democrat candidate running in a statewide election. This time the victim was Arlen Specter, who switched parties in 2009 in part on the understanding the Obama would support him in the Democrat primary and that Democrats would clear the primary field for him.  Someone forgot to tell Joe Sestak.  Although Obama backed Specter, Specter still lost to Sestak, 54%-46% – a bigger margin than polls had forecast.  The lesson seems clear: when Obama campaigns, his candidate loses – exactly what Republicans want to see heading into 2010.  Moreover, Critz’ victory in the 12th district was largely fueled by Democrat turnout for the up-ballot Sestak-Specter Senate primary race, rather than for any particular support for Critz.  Come November, when the two square off again, Burns will benefit from a more balanced partisan turnout.

C. The Progressives did.  Sestak’s victory in Pennsylvania against an establishment Democrat backed by the party stalwarts, including the President, is evidence that Democrats will do better come November by running to the Left, not to the Center. In Arkansas, meanwhile, conservative incumbent Democrat Senator Blanche Lincoln could not break the 50% mark in the Democrat primary, in narrowly winning Tuesday’s race, 45%-42% over the more liberal Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter. Her margin was not enough to avoid a runoff election with Halter. These Senate races indicate that it will be better for Democrats give voters a real choice rather than simply the thinly-veiled warmed over Republican-lite policies espoused by Lincoln and Specter.

D. The Tea Party did. In Kentucky, although the Republican establishment led by Senator Mitch McConnell threw its collective weight behind Trey Grayson, libertarian candidate Rand Paul – backed by the Tea Party – crushed Grayson 59%-34% in the Republican primary in a race characterized by unusually heavy turnout.  In his victory speech, Paul promised not to back away from the Tea Party’s ideals of smaller, less intrusive government when running in the November Senate election.

In the days following Tuesday’s election, all four scenarios received backing in pundits’ sermons – which homily one heard depended on which particular Church of the Blog/Media Pundit one attends. By now, of course, you should know that I’m usually skeptical of efforts by pundits to weave a single narrative to explain election results that often are driven by different contextual factors.  This is particularly the case when we are dealing with special elections, as in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, or elections with their own unique twist, such as a Democrat primary involving a former Republican senator.  Because these elections turned on somewhat unique circumstances, they likely defy a single explanation.  In this respect, all four explanations presented by various pundits may contain a kernel of truth, but none likely explain all the results.

And yet, I think the results are consistent with a particular hypothesis, one I’ve been cautiously developing as election results begin to trickle in. For some time, I’ve been skeptical that voters appear willing to turn on a dime – that is, that they will reverse the pro-Democrat direction they seemed to embrace in successive national elections beginning in 2006.  The more I analyze recent election results, however, the more I wonder whether what we are seeing is not a reversal of 2006-08 – it’s a continuation of that election cycle, one in which voters expressed anger at the party-in-charge by voting them out.  In the aftermath of the financial meltdown, the unprecedented budget deficit, and the perceived failure (true or not) of the government stimulus bill and bank bailout bills to create jobs or reduce home foreclosures, that anger seems only to have grown.  Now it is directed primarily at Democrat incumbents, but the motivation hasn’t changed: it’s “throw the bums out!”  Consider the following statewide election results table (contested Senate races only):

CONTESTED SENATE RACE THIS YEAR Did Incumbent/Establishment-Backed Candidate Lose?
Massachusetts Senate Race to Replace Kennedy YES
Illinois  Democrat Senate Primary NO BUT – Establishment candidate won only  38% of vote, with opposition candidates fragmenting support.
Indiana  Republican Senate Primary NO BUT – Opposition fragmented vote; Establishment candidate won with only 39% of the vote
North Carolina Democrat Senate Primary NO BUT- Establishment Candidate wins 36% of vote, Runoff to be held June 22.
Utah Republican Convention (to Determine Republican Senate Primary Nominee) YES
Pennsylvania Democrat Senate Primary YES
Kentucky Republican Senate Primary YES
Arkansas Democrat Senate Primary NO BUT – Incumbent wins only 46% of Vote. Runoff to be held June 8th

Now, there are self-selection effects here; contested races are typically those in which the incumbent is vulnerable or in which the seat is open.  So I don’t list races, such as Tuesday’s Oregon Democrat Senate Primary in which the incumbent Ron Wyden easily won renomination after facing no opposition.  Moreover, eight Senate primary races do not constitute enough data points to detect a trend.  Nonetheless the results, to date, are consistent with a common theme: there is a strong anti-incumbency tide driving electoral outcomes, regardless of party.   Moreover, I could go back further and cite off-year gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia as consistent with this interpretation.

The anti-incumbency/establishment sentiment is the simplest explanation for Tuesday’s results, but one that is easy to miss because of analysts’ tendency to view politics through a fairly comprehensive and quite developed ideological lens. (Note that the major media outlets mostly framed the results as sending an anti-incumbent message, even if bloggers did not). That is, pundits on the Left and the Right tend to have a logically-constructed world view, one in which they view separate election outcomes as validation of a single political ideological scenario.  From this perspective, when voters vote, they do so because they support a particular set of policies and the candidates who espouse them.  So, in 2006 and 2008, the country sent a clear signal that it embraced Democrats because it wanted to move Left, toward the policies espoused by Democrat candidates: more government regulation of the financial sector, more government spending on jobs, health care reform, etc.

On Tuesday, however, we see races won by a Tea Party candidate, a Left-leaning Democrat and more mainstream candidates.  How to make sense of this?  What ideological signal is being sent?  Keep in mind that unlike political pundits pontificating on cable and in the blogosphere, most voters don’t, in fact, have a clearly developed world view.  In the parlance of political science, they exhibit little “attitude constraint”. That is, they are quite willing to hold views that are logically inconsistent and to vote in ways that seem somewhat contradictory, as in supporting Democrats in 2008 and Republicans two years later.  (I’ll develop this point in a later post that dissects the Tea Party ideology).  This does not mean Joe and Jane Q. Sixpack are voting randomly, without much thought.  In fact, if I’m right – a big IF – there is a very simple, consistent logic driving their vote through the three most recent election cycles, at least so far.

As further evidence that voter anger is driving results, consider that turnout was up in at least two of Tuesday’s contested elections. In the Arkansas primary, more voters showed up than did during the state’s 2008 presidential primary. In Kentucky the proportion of registered Republicans voting in the primary was actually greater than the proportion of registered Democrats for the first time in decades (although the absolute numbers of Democrats was higher, consistent with their higher overall numbers in the state.)  I don’t have Pennsylvania turnout figures as yet, although indications are that it was light.

Whether one agrees that Tuesday’s results are consistent with the motivations of voters in 2006 and 2008, I believe the unifying theme of Tuesday’s elections was voter anger directed at incumbents or those who are stand-ins for incumbency.  Americans don’t want ideologies, they want results, and they aren’t particularly choosy about who brings them those results.  In this respect, I think the Tea Party has probably come closest to tapping into a growing voter anger in part because as a social movement encompassing a diverse if combustible mix of elements – libertarianism, fiscal conservatism, populism and yes, even a touch of racism (but not, interestingly, moral conservatism) – it has proved flexible and adaptable enough to embrace candidates of different political stripes.  And yet we shouldn’t overstate the degree of support it has among those likely to vote in the general election come November. Many of those potential voters have not yet begun paying attention to the current electoral cycle and when they do the economy may be on the upswing.  For now, however, the Tea Party may represent the culmination of voter backlash dating back three election cycles, but if so they are only a symptom of that discontent – not the driving force.  I do not think they have the numbers to consistently focus that discontent in a particular direction – at least not yet.

So who really won Tuesday’s elections?  Angry voters did.


  1. Matt, based on the most counter intuitive results, the Tea party was the biggest winner. Lincoln, Critz,and Sestak all fit within the throw the incumbent out analysis you suggest. But Paul is outside the box; there was a viable Republican candidate supported by the Mitch McConnell, but he lost. Paul thanked the Tea Party 13 times in his victory speech. So he gives real credibility to the Tea Party as a dynamic political force in November. My arithmetic suggests that the Republicans lost more than the Democrats.

  2. Matthew,
    It looks like I waited too long to enter the comment on an earlier article, but the comment applies here.

    In that comment, and my own blog post it links to, the main issue is R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
    The voters are tired of being ignored and having their concerns dismissed. They are trying to pull back in the hard times and see no restraint on government’s part. Conservative commentator Larry Elder believes it is only incumbents who backed unpopular items (health care, Stimulus, bailouts, etc.) who are being tossed, but I don’t have information to verify that.
    The last poll I saw said about 70% of the public thinks the Arizona “papers” law makes sense and we just saw the Democrats give a standing ovation to the Mexican President criticizing the law. People are worried about immigration. It is always an issue when unemployment is a concern. It seems like the people in Congress are determined to be deaf. That is a bad idea when the public is screaming to be heard.

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