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.
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