Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Final Thoughts on Yesterday’s Elections

Summary: Dave at WAYLA reviews the November 2009 elections and their implications.

First I want to start by looking back on my predictions from Monday. In Virginia I said McDonnell would win handedly against Deeds, and he did. In fact, he won with 59% of the vote - 2% more than I expected.

In New Jersey, I wrongly suggested Corzine could squeak in a victory, and no matter who won it would be close (as in, by a point or so) - as it turned out, Christie defeated the incumbent governor by more than 4%.

In Maine, I suggested it would come down to whether the youth and progressive votes would turn out in proportionally higher numbers than the older voters and conservatives. Unfortunately, I don’t have the exit poll information to check that, but I’ll get back to this race later in the post.

In New York City I turned out to be dead-on in my prediction: incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg won, but with a much smaller margin than pundits were predicting. I was hearing he might win by as much as 10%-15% yesterday - he won by just 5% over City Comptroller Bill Thompson.

In New York’s 23rd Congressional District I was wrong yet again, assuming that Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman would defeat Democrat Bill Owens by a substantial margin. Owens won with a 3-point lead over Hoffman. In fairness, I was second-guessing that prediction yesterday hours before polls closed in New York, and I’ll explain why shortly.

Second of all, let me stress that I don’t believe this was a referendum on President Obama or the Democratic Party. In fact, Tom Schaller had a very interesting post the other day, suggesting it could be more of a referendum on the GOP.

However, most of this comes down to the local circumstances of each race. As we mentioned last week, the Deeds defeat - and the extent to which he lost - had more to do with poor campaigning on the part of him and his party than on anything to do with the “spending in Washington” we’ve heard so much about. Chuck Todd said it best when he pointed out “[the Virginia race is] a good reminder that campaigns matter.”

In New Jersey, Corzine was plagued by the difficulties of governing in a recession - something we’ve discussed time and time again. In order to balance the state budget he had to increase property taxes and reduce services - actions that would be unpopular no matter what. The property tax increase was particularly damaging to him - according to the exit polls, a whopping 26% of voters said it was their main issue in the race, and that meant a significant drop in support (by perhaps as many as 100,000 voters) in the suburbs of Philadelphia and New York City.

Now let me get back to the elections in Maine and NY-23.

Yesterday something crossed my mind while looking at the polls on Question 1 in Maine - what if we were looking at a Bradley Effect?

To explain, let’s look at the three most recent polls on the issue. Two found that the referendum would fail - a Daily Kos / Research 2000 poll said it would by 1% and a Pan Atlantic poll said it would by 11%. A third poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling, found the referendum would pass by 4% - which is roughly what happened.

It’s important to note that unlike the other two polls, the PPP survey was an automated response poll - allowing respondents to explain their position by punching in numbers on their keypads and not talking to a live person. This allowed them to be honest about their opposition to gay marriage without being embarrassed for what could be perceived as homophobia.

I was led on to that theory by a recent article in Politico on the gay marriage referendum. Just read some of the responses from those interviewed:

"[‘No on 1’] did a very good job of humanizing the issue," said state Sen. Peter Mills, a Republican who voted for the marriage equality law and opposes Question One. "They had gay couples inviting themselves into the Rotary Club and talking about what it's like to live in a world where it's possible to discriminate against somebody just because they're a same-sex couple."…

…"Even in the conservative areas, they don't like the government telling them what to do and making choices for them," said former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who served as a Republican senator from Maine and has not taken a position on Question 1. "Maine people in particular are very open to change, even though it's a moderate-to-conservative state overall."

Republican politicians not only kept mum about the issue, but some even went so far as to oppose Question 1, seemingly to save themselves from what they figured was a socially libertarian electorate. In fact, it seems quite possible that many anti-gay marriage Mainers were hiding their true opinions from their neighbors.

Moving a few hours south of the Pine Tree State we come to New York’s 23rd. Many - including myself - initially figured that Hoffman would solidify support from Scozzafava’s base despite her endorsement of Owens. After all, the polls said he would.

But yesterday two things occurred to me. First, Scozzafava would remain on the ballot, and a sizeable portion of her supporters would vote for her regardless of her decision to drop out - it turned out to be 6% of the electorate.

Second, many of Scozzafava’s supporters probably quickly decided that they would support Hoffman - Owens was a Democrat, after all - and then later changed their minds. The second part of that trend, however, wouldn’t have been reflected in the polls following Scozzafava’s decision - it took place just four days before the election. My guess is a number of these voters took a step back and said “well, I am a center-right conservative, but this Hoffman guy is really out there - he just called Glenn Beck his mentor.”

With a shake-up as dramatic as Scozzafava’s decision, it’s quite possible that her supporters were scrambling like that to make a decision before Tuesday.

Finally, everyone is going to want to point out broader implications about what these elections mean for 2010. Republicans are saying that voters - even blue state voters like those in New Jersey - are rejecting Obama/Democratic policies and that we’ll see this trend continue in 2010. Democrats are arguing that the shake-up in NY-23 indicates that conservative activists are moving the GOP so far to the right that they won’t be electable next year.

The implication I see, however, is along the lines of an idea we’ve discussed before. Next year might be a tough year for Democrats on the state level, but probably not too bad of a year on the federal level.

We saw such trends yesterday. Democrats won in special Congressional elections in New York and California, while losing statewide races in New Jersey and Virginia, not to mention State Legislative seats in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Whether those trends will carry on in 2010 will now depend on just how the parties and campaigns position themselves going into next year.

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