Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Meaning of the 09 Election

The big task after election day is always to try to figure out what it means. Many commentators have wisely advised not to read too much into this election and that is smart advice. But this election did provide us new data that I think tells us some things.

First, it tells us that the Republican Party is not dead as many thought following the 08 elections and President Obama's historic win. Had the Republican Party lost in Virginia, New Jersey and NY House 23, legitimate questions would have and could have been raised about the near-term viability of the Party as a national force in American democracy. The fact that Republicans won two governorships so convincingly in two different types of states, shows that the Party is alive and well.

Second, medium voter theorem works. The Republican candidates who did well were the ones who ran as moderates and downplayed divisive social issues. This is an important lesson for Republicans from NY 23 and also what explains (in part) NY and VA. So, if Republicans believe that they can turn their Party over to extreme candidates on the right, they should be prepared to get used to results like NY 23.

Third, this is also a lesson for Democrats. While the Republican Party is waging a very public fight between its very conservative and moderate parts, Democrats are threatening to do the the equivalent between their moderate and progressive wing. If this becomes the lesson that Democrats learn from 09, and it looks like it is, then I think Democrats are in for a real struggle in 2010 and 2012. President Obama won in 08 because he ran as a centrist. It is true that his base and progressives were energized, but not because promised a left-wing agenda. Obama capitalized on the anger against Bush, the economic collapse, and the historicity of his presidency. While I might prefer more progressive policies, I have a stronger preference for winning elections than winning ideological battles. Call me a pragmatist.

Fourth, let us not blame the President for these high-profile losses. If the economy turns around, all of this handwringing by Democrats will be just that. If the economy does not turn around, you can pass all of the progressive legislation you want, Democrats will be in trouble in 2010 and 2012.


  1. What do you think these elections mean vis-a-vis the Democratic party? Is this a reflection upon how these states view Democratic performance nationally, or do you think that this is more of a response to issues particular to each state? Especially given how different these states are.

  2. El:
    At this stage, one cannot dismiss the explanation that there were different issues in both of these states. In NJ Corzine was a very unpopular governor and in VA Deeds was not a very strong candidate. So, the argument would go that each state had different factors that favored the Republicans over the Democrats. I think there is something to that argument.

    But for me, both states are cautionary tales. Even in states as different as Virginia (a swing state) and NJ (less of a swing state and one that went for Obama by wide margins), voters were willing to turn to the Republican Party where they were dissatisfied with the Democratic option. Second, both states reflected the fact that Republican voters were more enthusiastic than Democratic voters. Third, independents, in contrast to 08, are willing to vote for the Republicans. Fourth, economic factors, specifically jobs, are an important issue for the electorate. If this remains true in 2010, the Democrats are in for it.