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Mixed Messages

The center proves to be the most popular place in American politics.

Republicans are proclaiming victory after their candidates won statehouses in New Jersey and Virginia. And well they should. These were both states that went for Barack Obama in 2008. But how much do these elections really say about Obama and the prospects of the national Democratic Party? Some network commentators, citing suspiciously high approval ratings for Obama in New Jersey and Virginia, claim the elections say nothing at all about the president and his party. I think that may be true of the New Jersey results, but I don’t think it’s true of the Virginia governor’s race or, in a perverse way, of the congressional race in upstate New York. 

Virginia: Voters in the state’s off-year gubernatorial elections have backed the candidate of the party that does not control the White House in every election since 1977. So by this measure, it was to be expected that Republican Bob McDonnell would defeat Democrat Creigh Deeds. But there are reasons to believe that McDonnell’s easy victory, along with that of other Republicans in state races, had something to do with national politics.

Virginia, once a uniformly conservative state, now has a substantial moderate and liberal electorate, based primarily in the Northern Virginia suburbs. These voters have pushed state Democrats--once as conservative as the Republicans--to the center-left, and they’ve made sure those Democrats have a real chance in statewide elections. Democrats have controlled the governor’s office and most state offices since 2001; and both senators are now Democrats. So there was some reason to believe that a Democrat could win the governor’s office, particularly because with the current Democratic governor Tim Kaine remaining popular even during the recession, voters would be unlikely to display hostility toward the incumbent party in Richmond.

But McDonnell won easily, and Republicans also swept other statewide offices. McDonnell was clearly a better candidate than Deeds. He looked and talked like a governor, while the rumpled Deeds looked and talked like a frazzled high school principal. (My colleague Jason Zengerle speculates, too, that Deeds, a genuine product of rural and Southern Virginia, couldn’t appeal to Northern Virginia suburbanites, while McDonnell trumpeted his roots in Fairfax Country.) Deeds also appears to have slighted the black vote by failing to court major black figures in the state, including former governor Doug Wilder. And he also didn’t bring Obama into the state until it was too late. The final exit polls are not in, but there seems to have been a major falloff in black participation from 2008.

Deeds probably devoted too much of his campaign to dredging up the details of the male chauvinist graduate thesis that McDonnell wrote, and not enough to saying what he would do if he were governor. And what he did say--commendably intimating that he would raise taxes to fix Virginia’s transportation mess--got him in trouble. McDonnell, meanwhile, took his social conservative base for granted, and ran to the center, stressing the importance of jobs, transportation, and lower taxes.

In the exit polls, a majority of voters said Obama didn’t figure in their preferences, and Obama also scored relatively high in approval on exit polls. But I suspect that Obama was still a factor. If you look at the graphs that puts up that average out the polling findings, you find that towards the end of July, or in early August, the margin between Deeds and McDonnell jumped, and remained high for the rest of the election. At the very same time, Obama’s approval numbers in Virginia plummeted, and except for some outlier polls, have remained below fifty percent.

In the polls put out by Public Policy Polling in North Carolina, a Democratic firm whose estimates in Virginia and New Jersey turned out to be remarkably accurate, McDonnell’s margin over Deeds jumped from six points to 14 points between June 30 and July 31. At the same time, Obama’s approval went from plus two to minus nine. On the eve of the election, PPP still had Obama with a minus nine in approval. 

In PPP’s last poll, there is also another interesting correlation. The poll shows McDonnell winning 15 percent of the electorate that voted for Obama in 2008, and 13 percent of Democrats disapproving of the job that Obama is doing in office. That suggests that Democrats who disapproved of Obama were likely to vote for McDonnell. This is not to say that disapproval of Obama doomed Deeds; only that it may have been a factor in the defeat of Deeds and other Democrats on the statewide ticket.

Finally, there is a dog-that-didn’t-bark factor that affects all these races. In 1982, the Republicans under Ronald Reagan suffered relatively small losses in the congressional races partly because Reagan continued to energize the Republican base. In Virginia and elsewhere, Obama doesn’t seem to have energized the Democratic base. In the PPP polls in Virginia right before the election, only 38 percent of Democrats said they were “very excited” about the election compared to 64 percent of Republicans. That probably reflects a lack of interest in Deeds, but it may also reflect the lack of identification with Obama’s national Democratic Party.

New Jersey: Up north a little, there were less obvious connections to Obama’s popularity. Well before voters had begun to question Obama, they had soured on Jon Corzine. Corzine had failed to make good on his promises in the 2005 election. He was considered incapable of working with the legislature. He was tainted by scandals within the Democratic Party. Corzine himself blamed the recession, but other governors, including Virginia’s Kaine or Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, have managed to avoid voters’ ire while suffering from falling revenues and rising unemployment.

As the election began last summer, Republican nominee Chris Christie was well out ahead of Corzine--by ten to 15 percentage points. But Christie, like Deeds, ran an ineffective race, and proved vulnerable to a negative campaign waged by Corzine. By September, Corzine had turned what had looked like a Republican blowout into a close race. Christie still won, but largely because Corzine could never overcome the burden of his own unpopularity.

In early exit polls, Corzine suffered among independents and moderates--whom Obama won in 2008 and who hold the swing vote in statewide elections. In the PPP poll taken before the election, Obama was unpopular in the state among independents--with 39 percent approval to 50 percent disapproval--but they probably would have voted for Christie regardless of what they thought of Obama’s presidency. Corzine suffered from the worst of all possible outcomes: He failed to excite the state’s Democrats, including the local party machines, but he was seen by independents as a Democratic hack.

New York’s 23rd District: Republicans had certainly expected to inherit the seat in upstate New York’s 23rd district, which was vacated by Republican John McHugh when Obama appointed him Secretary of the Army. Congressional districts shift but this area had been Republican since the Civil War. Still, there were danger signs. Obama had won the district by 52 to 47 percent in 2008, and the Republicans who had held its seat in recent years were moderates like McHugh, who backed abortion rights, an increase in the minimum wage, and the expansion of the children’s health program. Dede Scozzafava was the choice of these moderate Republicans, but she was opposed on the right by Doug Hoffman, a dour accountant who was primarily interested in cutting spending and taxes, but who also courted the social conservatives that the pro-choice Scozzafava alienated.

National politics entered the race when the great rightwing conspiracy--which includes tea partiers, Richard Armey’s Freedom Works, the Club for Growth, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh--adopted Hoffman. These people don’t represent swing voter disapproval of Obama, but a sectarian mentality borne out of political frustration and marginality, out of a feeling that America is inexorably heading in the wrong direction and that they alone can stop it. They don’t want to defeat Obama, but to topple him, and they saw in Hoffman’s election, and the ouster of a moderate Republican, a chance to make a statement.

They helped pour money into Hoffman’s campaign. The Club for Growth alone spent $340,000 running ads for Hoffman. With their backing, Hoffman pushed Scozzafava out of the race. She lacked funds or impassioned followers. But Hoffman and his supporters misjudged the district. When Scozzafava endorsed Owens, many of those who would have voted for her backed Owens, and he won the race. Upstate New York, which used to be solidly Republican, now boasts a single conservative congressman. New York, like New England, has become solidly Democratic.

If the results of New York’s 23rd are placed alongside those of New Jersey and Virginia, there is a clear lesson for the Republicans. In New Jersey and Virginia, the gubernatorial candidates ran to the center. Christie is a moderate, and McDonnell at least pretended to be. And as a result, they got the swing vote of independents and moderates. In New York-23, a diehard conservative backed by rightwing groups repudiated the center and lost to a neophyte Democratic candidate who probably could not have beaten Scozzafava in a one-to-one contest.

Democrats have reason to worry about candidates like McDonnell--particularly if the unemployment rate continues in 2010 to undermine Obama’s standing among voters. That is the message that the Virginia election sends. But Democrats don’t have to worry about a party dominated by Armey, Beck, Palin, and Hoffman. That is the message of New York’s 23rd.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.