What a Difference a Year Makes

How last night’s election results were bad for Obama.

This piece was originally published on Election Night, Nov. 3, and updated on Nov. 4, after the results for New York’s 23rd district were in. 

President Obama’s message of change was so powerful in 2008 that voters held on to it for an extra year. In Virginia and New Jersey, they dropped the incumbent Democratic Party and went with the Republican candidates. In New Jersey, voters said change was the quality that mattered most in their vote for governor, and among those voters, Chris Christie won by a margin of more than two to one. (The closely watched special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district, where independent Douglas Hoffman ran as an agent of change, was too close to call.)

It was a good evening for Republicans. Their candidates won, but they also picked up some good talking points—and, boy, do they need them. Voters have a low opinion of the Republican Party. In a variety of polls, the number of people willing to admit to pollsters that they belong to the GOP has been at its lowest level in 25 years.

Washington Republicans have been trying to nationalize these gubernatorial elections: Voters were reacting to Obama’s policies, they say. That’s a stretch. Neither Republican candidate tried to run against Obama. (In Virginia, Bob McDonnell actually praised Obama when he won the Nobel Peace Prize.) But all this talk about Obama also obscures a better message: For the GOP, the stronger argument coming out of the 2009 elections is that voters are embracing Republican ideas. The GOP won in a purple state and in a solidly Democratic state.

The Republican candidates killed among independents. In both New Jersey and Virginia, they won by two to one. Independent voters make up their largest share of the electorate since pollsters have been counting them. In 2006 and 2008, these voters backed Congressional Democrats, and in the 2008 presidential race, they went for Obama 51 percent to 47 percent over John McCain. They’ve been souring on his presidency, though, and now more disapprove of his performance than approve. In Virginia, Obama won 48 percent of independents. The Republican Bob McDonnell won 68 percent of those voters this time around. In New Jersey, Christie carried independents 58 percent to 31 percent, which helped him overcome the fact that there are 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in that state.

Winning independents is important because Democrats are trying to paint Republicans as captive to the most extreme wing of the party. Independents, who tend to dislike extremism of any sort, wouldn’t be voting for Republicans if that were the case.

The GOP just has to hope that the congressional race in New York’s 23rd district gets less attention, regardless of the outcome. Of course, that’s not what populist conservatives want. For them, a victory of the independent conservative candidate Hoffman would be a spark to light the bigger fire of a Grand National Realignment. Maybe. But it’s going to be ugly getting from here to there, as conservatives bicker with moderates and party insiders bicker with self-styled outsiders. Indeed, fights are breaking out all over in the GOP. The latest is Sen. Olympia Snowe vs. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty over how the party should proceed on health care reform.

The New York race already split the party—pitting Sarah Palin and Fred Thompson against Newt Gingrich and the Republican National Committee. A victory would probably spur more purity tests as conservatives seek to repeat their success. Any presidential candidate who wants to show his conservative credentials will seek out opportunities in future races like New York’s 23rd district to call out ideologically impure candidates. That may have worked in the northernmost district of New York, where Palin could successfully weigh in. But it might not work elsewhere. In Virginia, for example, McDonnell resisted Palin’s help.

The evening was not a referendum on Obama. Each race had local issues—taxes in New Jersey and transportation in Virginia—and flawed candidates. By clear majorities, voters in New Jersey and Virginia said they weren’t basing their decisions on the president. The 60 percent who said so in New Jersey almost matched the same number who gave a similar answer to the New York Times about George Bush on the eve of the 2005 gubernatorial elections. Thirty-nine percent said they were voting to oppose the president (though Bush’s approval rating at the time was 39 percent, 12 points lower than Obama’s is now).

But that’s not to say it was a good night for Obama. Voters are very jittery about the economy. In both New Jersey and Virginia, voters listed it as their top priority. Those voters overwhelmingly voted for Republicans. That’s not good for Obama or his party going into the 2010 elections—unless, of course, the jobs picture turns around. A Democracy Corps poll sounded a warning on Election Day. In the 60 closest congressional districts, Republicans scored somewhat better than Democrats on the economy, particularly with messages that focused on the deficit.

Here’s more bad news for Obama and Democrats in 2010. Turnout for Democrats wasn’t very good. Everyone knew that the Obama Democrats of 2008 wouldn’t turn out. But the president visited both New Jersey and Virginia at least in part to help turn out the Democratic base. The number of young voters and African-American voters, both of whom were such a strong part of Obama’s coalition, were down in both contests. In Virginia, African-American turnout was 15 percent, down from 20 percent in 2008. Voters aged 18 to 29 made up only 10 percent of the vote, down over 50 percent from last year.

And here’s why turnout matters to the unfinished health care debate. If Democrats start to think that Obama can’t help them—or at least protect them—in next year’s election, they’ll feel less compelled to vote with him. They won’t take his promises to give them cover if they have to take a hard vote. They’ll pay particular attention to the New Jersey experience. As Corzine told Politico: “One of the reasons that President Obama came in, was to excite the base.” Obama made five campaign stops for Corzine in the last few months. This past Sunday, he made two stops to bring out his most ardent supporters.

The president can explain that he has more influence over issues in the national conversation that will be part of the 2010 races—and that he wasn’t on the ballot anywhere in 2009. But members of Congress are a nervous bunch. This will make them more so.

Any partisan who wanted to turn away from the election results could find solace in the By the People, which aired last night on HBO. It told the story of Obama’s historic election one year ago (almost to the day). But the images of Obama’s promises of change seemed disconnected from the familiar small politics of this year’s election cycle—and the big one to come next year. The change hasn’t come. Perhaps the more helpful message was playing just a few channels away on PBS. On Nova, a program traced the story of the evolution of man more than 3.2 million years ago. The message: Change takes time.

Update, Nov. 4:

Democrat Bill Owens won in New York’s 23rd district, becoming the first of his party to hold that seat since the Civil War. This was a defeat for populist conservatives who had backed independent conservative Doug Hoffman but perhaps good news for Republicans who want to keep the party broad by allowing candidates who match their constituencies rather than the ideological tests of movement conservatives. Newt Gingrich argued that by purging the party of candidates who didn’t agree (as ultimately happened with the Republican in this race), it would guarantee Obama’s re-election and make Nancy Pelosi speaker for life because the pure conservative candidate wouldn’t be able to win in more moderate districts.

The win was also good news for Joe Biden. He made a last-minute trip to the district to campaign for Owens. Some thought it was risky. The opposition mocked him. Former Sen. Fred Thompson cracked: “You know, the vice president’s job is to attend funerals. Maybe he came a day early.” Biden mocked right back, taking on Hoffman-backer Sarah Palin during his visit. Talking about energy policy, he said, “The fact of the matter is, Sarah Palin thinks the answer to energy is ‘drill, baby, drill.’ It’s a lot more complicated, Sarah.”

Palin was undaunted. On her Facebook page she wrote: “The race for New York’s 23rd District is not over, just postponed until 2010.  … To the tireless grassroots patriots who worked so hard in that race and to future citizen-candidates like Doug, please remember Reagan’s words of encouragement after his defeat in 1976: ‘The cause goes on. Don’t get cynical because look at yourselves and what you were willing to do, and recognize that there are millions and millions of Americans out there that want what you want, that want it to be that way, that want it to be a shining city on a hill.’ The cause goes on.”