I skipped my duties as a political writer and chose to watch Mad Men reruns with friends instead of the election returns last night. It didn’t seem like I needed to go through the ritual to know the outcome: Whether the Democrats (and progressive issues in general) did better than expected or not, the spin would be that this is good for Republicans. It always is . And not only would the Republicans and conservative issues show better than in 2008, but that the pundits would go nuts with excitement at the idea that this represents some sort of Obama backlash, and that even if they couldn’t argue that directly, they’d do it by proxy . Watching election returns was therefore like getting up to verify it’s raining when you hear thunder and the crash of water on your roof.
But using an off-year election to gauge the mood of the country is like polling the contestants at a bingo hall and making the same broad conclusions. I don’t make this comparison lightly. Bingo and voting in off-year elections have a great deal in common, in that both are activities mainly undertaken by often crabby old people who need ways to entertain themselves in their retirement years. Off-year elections are notorious for low turnout , and most of that is due to younger people and poorer people not voting, because both groups are less likely to know that there even is an election, much less be able to take the time off work to go vote. (Yes, you have a legal right to take time off, but that doesn’t translate into a practical right.) Unsurprisingly, if white retirees and older professionals are way overrepresented at the polls, you’re much more likely to get Republican winners, votes against gay marriage, and a willingness to vote for candidates who want to roll back the clock to a time when birth control was illegal .
Before drawing broad conclusions about the national mood from a few off-year elections, it’s also wise to remember that local and state elections are often decided on local and state politics. As Adele Stan explains , property taxes and transportation issues had more influence on the gubernatorial elections than any kind of widespread hostility to the national Democratic party.
The main lessons of last night’s election are: 1) Local politics are indeed local; 2) The reactionary elements in our society are the ones that are going to die off first; and 3) Don’t draw broad conclusions from relatively minor elections. Anything else is wanking to fill airspace on the cable news.