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Election trends worth watching


Dismissive as I am of trying to read too deeply into a small handful of statewide, off-year elections, there are a couple of structural trends worth keeping an eye on.

The first is the composition of the electorate. The coalition that elected Barack Obama had an uncommonly high percentage of young and African American voters. That was particularly important in states like Indiana and Virginia, where the electorate that normally controls elections doesn't favor national Democrats.

But Barack Obama wasn't on the ballot yesterday, and he won't be on the ballot in 2010. If his voters stayed home last night, many politicians will take that as proof that they'll stay home in 2010, too. That doesn't just make the map harder for Democrats. It also moves Democrats to the right, as their consultants will explain that a winning coalition requires more voters from relatively conservative blocs, like seniors and downscale independents, and thus a more centrist campaign strategy.

The second is the role the economy played. It's not uncommon to see incumbents losing amid high unemployment numbers. You saw part of that playing out in New Jersey, where Corzine went down, but it was more striking in New York, where Bloomberg almost went down. Bloomberg was a lot more popular than Corzine, and he outspent his challenger 20:1. The fact that he came within a few percentage points of losing suggests this is not a very good time to be an incumbent. It also suggests that Democrats might want to think about further forms of stimulus that will either deliver immediate benefits to voters (tax credits, say) or move the unemployment numbers more quickly.

The third is the difference between statewide elections and congressional elections. As Matt Yglesias points out, last night's House elections saw a Democrat replace a Republican in New York's 23rd, and a progressive Democrat replace a moderate Democrat in California's 10th. There's good national polling evidence that congressional Republicans are about as popular as a skin lesion, and that the conservative tilt of the party is freaking out independents.

The problem with all this is that last night's elections weren't a big enough sample size to say anything definitive, or even particularly suggestive. Two governorships changed hands. Two House seats changed hands. But we in the political press still need to write stories today, and you out there in the audience generally deliver greater numbers to our advertisers when we write about elections, so here we are.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 4, 2009; 11:08 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Next: What Bloomberg's win cost him


I'd say when a Democrats wins a seat Republicans have held since 1871 that's a pretty good sample size.

Posted by: redwards95 | November 4, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I realize that it's not your endorsement of the strategy, but the takeaway from the changed composition of the electorate in this election should not be "[moving] Democrats to the right, as their consultants will explain that a winning coalition requires more voters from relatively conservative blocs, like seniors and downscale independents."

The takeaway for Democrats should be to get the younger voters and voters of color to haul their asses into the voting booth in 2010. Y'know, just text them and twitter them to death until they get to their behinds down to the polling place. This should be the focus starting now. Because getting Democrats to move to the right is not a winning strategy (witness Virginia).

Posted by: JJenkins2 | November 4, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

The election in upstate NY was more about the Republicans shooting themselves in the foot than about anything about the Democrats. It remains to be seen what Republicans will take as the lesson from the race, and whether they will feel that they just need more ideologic purity earlier.

Meanwhile, I remain mystified when people feel that governors' elections say much about national issues. Governors' elections are about local issues and to some extent about personalities. My own state voted Democrat in the last five presidential elections and has a Democratic majority in its House delagation, but has not elected a Democrat governor since 1986. Local issues and personalities account for that.

The biggest thing that the elections in NJ and VA accomplish is strengthening the GOP's hand in re-districting following the 2010 census -- not a small thing.

Posted by: PatS2 | November 4, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I pretty much agree. It's the economy, stupid.

I will add that Obama paid the most attention to NJ, where it was not exactly clear who the good guys and bad guys were, and didn't lift a finger in ME. Actions. Words. They don't match and I think people are coming to this realization.

Posted by: luko | November 4, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

This is where a strong national party chair should come into play. Howard Dean was setting up offices all over the map in preparation for 2008. What's Tim Kaine been doing?

Posted by: mslavick | November 4, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

One trend, people want Dems at the national level.

Gov's will also lose in a recession, while being forced to do either or both: raise taxes/cut spending in the midst of a recession. All gov's will be unpopular right now, they are in a very bad spot.

And, count me as one who doesn't consider dumping a goldman exec as an indicator that populism is dead.

Posted by: rat-raceparent | November 4, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

There's a strong anti-incumbent trend, and to the extent that Dems make up most of the incubents, they're going to be the losers.

A longer term problem for Obama is marriage equality. Around 75% of his base is pro gay marriage, and they're pretty ticked off at him now. It's going to be hard to turn that around.

Posted by: bmull | November 4, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

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