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The Election's Carry-Over Lessons? There Are Fewer Than You Think.

5 years ago
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The gubernatorial wing of the GOP – the last bastion of pragmatists in an ideologically rigid party – was probably the major victor Tuesday night amid a series of surprising off-year election results from East Coast states.

Chris Christie, the former federal prosecutor who will become the GOP governor of reliably Democratic New Jersey, pulled off an upset by defeating free-spending but unpopular incumbent Jon Corzine by 100,000 votes. After fending off a conservative challenger in the June primary, Christie (strongly aided by the Republican Governors Association) railed against the state's highest-in-the-nation property taxes and continually reminded voters that he was not Corzine.

In Virginia, a state that a year ago embodied the emerging Barack Obama majority, Republican Bob McDonnell romped home, as expected, with 59 percent of the vote by emphasizing jobs and feigning near-amnesia over a controversial 1989 master's thesis that stressed strong right-wing views on women in the workplace and homosexuality. Facing lackluster Democrat Creigh Deeds, McDonnell benefited from an electorate that was disproportionately Republican. According to exit polls, Virginia voters who turned out for the gubernatorial election backed John McCain over Obama in 2008 by a margin of 51-to-43 percent.

For all the glib television talk about a dramatic GOP resurgence ("If you're a blue-state Democrat, the Virginia results must scare the heck out of you," Karl Rove declared on Fox News), the Democrats did win the only vigorously contested congressional race on Tuesday's ballot. In far upstate New York, Democrat Bill Owens, a Plattsburgh attorney, narrowly defeated Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman, whose nationally ballyhooed insurgent campaign had driven the moderate Republican candidate from the race. The result of this over-hyped battle for "the soul of the Republican Party" was that the North Country of New York has sent a Democrat to Congress for the first time since the 19th century.

The lasting political lesson from Tuesday night may have nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with Congress, Obama's political future or Democrats vs. Republicans. The little-noticed message buried in the returns was the dramatic collapse of mega-rich self-funded candidates, which may signal a populist protest against the era of political excess.

New York City's Mayor Mike Bloomberg – the eighth-richest man in America who has "invested" a quarter of a billion dollars on his political career since 2001 – was almost universally expected to coast to a third term over his flailing Democratic rival, city comptroller Bill Thompson. Instead, Bloomberg (despite boasting a 70-percent approval rating, according exit polls) eked out a 50,000-vote, 51-to-46 percent victory. Bloomberg lavished more than $100 million on this campaign (about $200 a vote), which would have been enough to pay for a steak dinner for two (along with a modest bottle of red wine) at the Palm. Most New Yorkers probably would have preferred the dinner – 42 percent of voters said in the exit polls that Bloomberg's spending was an "important" factor in their mayoral choice.

The downfall of Corzine, a former investment banker who is the second-biggest (to Bloomberg) self-funder in American history, offers a cautionary tale about the limits of money and aggressive campaign tactics in politics. Dominating the expensive TV markets of New York and Philadelphia, Corzine (whose disapproval ratings as governor were consistently more than 50 percent) tried to make Christie the issue, even accusing the stout and staunch Republican in a commercial of "throwing his weight around." Exit polls found that 73 percent of New Jersey voters thought that the tenor of Corzine's ad blitz was "unfair."

New Jersey also underscored the difficulties that independent candidates face in trying to replicate Jesse Ventura's stunning none-of-the-above 1998 victory in Minnesota. Independent Chris Daggett dominated both of New Jersey's televised gubernatorial debates; won the endorsement of the Newark Star-Ledger, the state's largest newspaper; and consistently polled in the low double digits. But in the end, Daggett (whose name was difficult to find on the New Jersey ballots) succumbed to voter reluctance to "waste" their vote on a no-hope candidate. His Election Day collapse destroyed Corzine's last hope that the anti-incumbent vote might be split between Christie and Daggett.

In upstate New York, Republican congressional nominee Dede Scozzafava (who was selected by county GOP leaders rather than in a primary) became, in effect, the third-party candidate when all the conservative energy (including endorsements by Sarah Palin and Fred Thompson) flowed to Hoffman. During a dizzying pre-election weekend, Scozzafava (who believed that the conservative rebellion was triggered by her support for gay marriage) abruptly withdrew from the race and then, a day later, endorsed Owens, her former Democratic opponent. This act of apostasy by Scozzafava vindicated Hoffman supporters, but it also probably handed the House seat to Owens, who won by 5,000 votes.

Exit polls are crude instruments for divining voter sentiments, since the questionnaires by necessity (people are filling them out standing up) have to be brief. In both New Jersey and Virginia (there were no exit polls in the upstate New York House race), a majority of voters said that Obama played no role in their voting decisions.

But what exit polls, of course, cannot reveal are the reasons why voters stayed home. Voters under the age of 30 were an important ingredient in the 2008 Obama coalition – and Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey, according to the exit polls, they remained a bit more Democratic than other age groups. The difference was a dramatic drop in turnout among voters between 18 and 29. In Virginia, these young voters made up 21 percent of the electorate in 2008 but just 10 percent in 2009. The drop was almost equally precipitous in New Jersey, from 17 percent to 9 percent.

These incredible shrinking turnout numbers, probably more than any other single factor, are what should worry the Obama White House and congressional Democrats. If the massive youth vote was an Obama-only (or, even worse, an anti-George-Bush-only) phenomenon, this has worrisome implications for the electoral map in 2010. But it is also risky to draw firm conclusions from the failure of any group of Democrats to turn out on behalf of Deeds (whose defeat was predicted weeks ago) or the unpopular Corzine.

With unemployment pushing 10 percent and home prices pushing daisies, there was palpable anger at the polls on Tuesday, which flared up in Corzine's defeat in New Jersey, Bloomberg's close call in New York City and the passions aroused by an otherwise obscure House race near the Canadian border. But the 2010 congressional and gubernatorial races will be shaped far more by the economic outlook (and Obama's approval ratings) next fall than anything that happened on Election Day 2009.

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