Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Some thoughts, not mine, on the election

For those who like to wonder about these things, here are some thoughts, with historical perspective, on the races in New Jersey and Virginia. Of course, any analysis depends on how many people voted and that doesn't seem available right now. More later. [This is from for those who are interested.]

"Republicans Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie won their gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, respectively. With stories spinning in all directions about the predictive value of yesterday's elections, perhaps a look at the historical record of the Virginia and New Jersey off-year elections will prove of interest. In all eight gubernatorial elections since Ronald Reagan's first term, Virginia has given the party of the incumbent President a loss. In New Jersey, the President's party has lost six gubernatorial elections in a row`. Here are the data.

Year President Virginia Winner New Jersey Winner Net House
2009 Barack Obama (D) Bob McDonnell (R) Chris Christie (R) ?
2005 George W. Bush (R) Tim Kaine (D) Jon Corzine (D) Dem +31
2001 George W. Bush (R) Mark Warner (D) Jim McGreevey (D) GOP +7
1997 Bill Clinton (D) Jim Gilmore (R) Christie Whitman (R) Dem +5
1993 Bill Clinton (D) George Allen (R) Christie Whitman (R) GOP +54
1989 George H.W. Bush (R) Doug Wilder (D) Jim Florio (D) Dem +7
1985 Ronald Reagan (R) Gerald Baliles (D) Tom Kean (R) Dem +5
1981 Ronald Reagan (R) Chuck Robb (D) Tom Kean (R) Dem +27

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) 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.

What about the predictive value of these elections? The House of Representatives midterm election the following year is probably the best metric since Senate elections are full of big names and partisan identification doesn't play as big a role there as in the House. The fifth column in the table above shows what happened in the House election in the year following the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races. Since 1982, the Democrats have swept both gubernational elections three times (1981, 2001, and 2005). In the House elections the year after, the Democrats experienced a small win, a small loss, and a big win. The Republicans also swept the two gubernatorial elections three times (1993, 1997, and 2009). In the midterms a year later they won big and lost small once each. So all told, sweeping the two governor's race gives you a 60% chance of picking up House seats the next year, hardly a sure thing. In short, the only pattern that seems constant over the years is the President's party doing badly in the two gubernatorial elections.

Will these results affect policy? Quite possibly. Democrats from conservative districts are likely to get antsy about voting for health care reform, climate change, immigration, or anything else on the President's agenda. Obama is going to have to convince them that running for reelection under the slogan "I blocked change" is not going to be a winner. But he will have his work cut out for him. In some cases the conservative Democrats may say (privately) to him: "Look, can't you just water all these things down so they don't change anything but you can still claim victory?" Of course, the progressive caucus in the House won't White House be fooled, so an internal struggle within the Democratic Party could ensue.
Democrat Owens Wins in NY-23

Speaking of intraparty warfare, what the Democrats are about to go through will be nothing compared to what the Republicans are in for. Democrat Bill Owens won the special election in NY-23 to replace former representative John McHugh who President Obama chose to be Secretary of the Army. The 11 Republican county chairman in the district handpicked assemblywoman Deirdre "Dede" Scozzafava as their candidate because she was moderate enough to have a chance to win in this R+2 district. Conservatives revolted and backed Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman. Numerous Republican 2012 candidates, including Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, and belatedly Mitt Romney endorsed (or sort of endorsed) Hoffman against the official Republican in the race. This past weekend, Scozzafava saw the polls saying she would come in third and dropped out of the race. To make matters worse, Monday she endorsed the Democrat. The election results as of 4 A.M. are Owens 48%, Hoffman 45%, and Scozzafava 6%. Four precincts haven't reported yet and the absentee ballots haven't been counted yet, but they are unlikely to change the outcome.

While not quite as weird as last year's race in NY-13, this race is going to generate a lot of bad blood between mainstream Republicans and conservatives. Party officials and former officials, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, are going to be saying to conservatives: "If you refuse to accept moderate candidates like Scozzafava, Nancy Pelosi is going to be Speaker for life." Conservatives are going to saying: "If we don't get candidates we like, we'll make sure you lose." It is going to be very nasty.

Also noteworthy is that Palin, Huckabee, Pawlenty, and to a lesser degree, Romney, may have scored a few points with conservatives, but backing an insurgent loser against the wishes of the Republican party is never a great selling point in a primary. If anything, this episode enhances the (probably fairly slim) chance of Gingrich, who can at least campaign saying: "Unlike the other folks in this race, I am a Republican, have always been one, and always support our candidates."

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