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2009 Elections Don’t Foretell a Thing

Posted on Nov 3, 2009

By Ruth Marcus

Advice to readers about the coming orgy of analysis about the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections: Ignore it. Disquisitions on The Meaning of It All for President Obama or the 2009 results as a harbinger for Congress in 2010 have scant basis in reality.

Over-interpreting election results is an occupational hazard for political reporters. This problem is particularly acute in the year after a presidential contest, when we are suffering from a bad case of electoral withdrawal.

Thus, The New York Times declares that the contests offer “some clues about how Americans are viewing Mr. Obama, as well as an early measure of the landscape for next year’s midterm elections.” National Public Radio says “the off-year elections are being watched by national politicians as a referendum on President Obama and his party.”

If so, a look at the history of these races suggests the prognosticators might as well be watching sunspots.

In the 15 gubernatorial elections since 1949, the voters of New Jersey and Virginia have chosen governors belonging to the same party 10 times (seven Democrats, three Republicans). In five of those 10 elections, the party winning both governorships went on to pick up seats in the House and Senate the next year. In three, a sweep of the statehouses augured precisely the opposite result in the subsequent congressional election. Once, Democrats won both governors’ races and went on to get a split result (losing seats in one house, gaining them in another). Once, the same thing happened to Republicans. Not a particularly compelling pattern.


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Nor does it help to expand the field to examine the consequences of a split result. That’s happened five times since 1949 (three times with a Democrat winning Virginia and a Republican taking New Jersey; twice the other way around). Three times Democrats have picked up seats the next year, twice the party has lost seats.

Does it make any difference which state the Republican (or Democratic) winner is from? Not really. Of the three times a Democrat won in Virginia while a Republican was elected in New Jersey, Democrats won seats twice and lost seats once. In the two split verdicts in which the Republican took the Virginia Statehouse while the Democrat won New Jersey’s, Democrats—you guessed it—won seats once and lost seats once.

As Maine goes, so goes the nation, the saying goes. When it comes to Virginia and New Jersey, though, there’s no predictive value.

Well, you may wonder, what about the five most recent elections since 1989? After all, the states have changed and elections have become more nationalized. Fair enough—except that here the correlation is just as weak. Democrats took both governorships three times (1989, 2001, 2005). In two of the subsequent congressional elections (1990 and 2006), they gained seats. In one, 2002, they lost seats. And in the two cycles in which Republicans won both governorships (1993 and 1997), Democrats lost seats once (1994) and gained seats once (1998).

Finally, do the off-year results foreshadow anything for a president’s re-election three years down the road? Hardly. Of the 10 elections in which one party won both states, a president of that party was elected six times in the following presidential contest.

Of course, there are years in which a president’s political woes contributed to his party’s poor showing in the off-year elections and the congressional midterms. The prime example is Bill Clinton’s experience of 1993-94, in which Republican gubernatorial victories presaged a shellacking in Congress. Democrats lost the House (down 54 seats) and Senate (down eight)—and then Clinton went on to win re-election. The next best example is George W. Bush in 2005-06, in which Democratic gubernatorial wins paved the way for large gains in the House (plus 31 seats) and Senate (plus six).

So it’s possible, for example, that Obama’s performance in office turned off some of the Virginians who voted for him last year, and played a role in the race between Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell. But Deeds was a lousy candidate, McDonnell a far more adept one. Virginia is a purple state, but purple with a decidedly reddish tinge.

But as to the question of whether Tuesday’s results portend very much for Congress in 2010 or Obama in 2012, the answer is: not really, all the commentary notwithstanding.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Louise, November 5, 2009 at 1:18 pm Link to this comment

Portions of Virginia and New jersey are highly transient. Plus some folks just automatically vote the opposite every four years, under the impression that doing so keeps state government honest. In any case the results of the governors races in those two states really means very little, except to folks desperately looking for justification for their hate democrats and all things Obama, hatred.

And of course, as predictable as stomach flu and the common cold ... they’re here smile

And the media’s need to make, create and analyse news, in an effort to validate their views of news, is absolutely essential. Especially when they cant find enough real news to fill up their hours. Well actually they could if they would, but going out and looking for it sounds a lot like work. Crap, that’s not what they get paid for. They get paid to pump hot air into empty attics.

Don’t believe me? Ask any advertising corp!

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By NYCartist, November 5, 2009 at 10:54 am Link to this comment

I think people who wanted change and voted for change just didn’t vote, in many places, such as NYC.

Paul Street has a new, good, article on Znet,
about “one year later”. “Perverted Priorities:One Year Later”, Nov.5, 2009

People are sending a message to pols. Do the pols care?

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By Samson, November 5, 2009 at 8:46 am Link to this comment

The Dems knew they were going to lose big in these off-year elections, so they had one of their press hacks turn out this garbage piece in advance.

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By Ian Kocher, November 5, 2009 at 7:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ruth Marcus couldn’t be more wrong. There is a clear and important lesson in Virginia, which went for Obama last year.

This year, exit polls there show clearly that Democratic voters stayed away in droves, giving state Republicans victories right down the ballot.

Last year, Democratic voters were lured to the polls by Obama’s change message. A year later, they see a traditional, DLC type Washington insider more than willing to brush their concerns aside. The very people responsible for the conditions that brought about the economic meltdown are back in power. Moreover, his chief of staff was sent to congress to sell a bogus ‘trigger’ public option, as opposed to a robust one.

Independent minded Democratic voters are savvy, and see through the discrepancy between words and deed. They will continue to stay home next year.

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By altara, November 5, 2009 at 6:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

related fake news


Some of the News
That may be True


In a conference call yesterday, Republican consultant Oliver B. Reese advised party leaders to seek candidates who were overweight.  “Not obese, mind you” said Reese, despite the success of President Taft. But just enough poundage to tempt opponents to imply that you were too fat to serve.

Obie, to use Reese’s nickname, explained further that voters believe that heavy people were more trustworthy, perhaps jolly. Also, voters can relate better to corpulent candidates, since many Americans exceed the weight chart standards.

In addition to last Tuesday’s results, history suggests that this is a winning strategy. Skinny Obama’s poll numbers are down and we know how famously fit George W. Bush performed in office. So follow President Clinton’s lead, get those Big Macs.


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By law, November 4, 2009 at 9:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The democrats are saying the november 2009 elections were their victory.  This only shows conservatives and freedom loving people and the hard working people of america that we must not stop here and we must continue the hard work of taking our country back.  Oh and in New York you replaced a very liberal republican with a conservative democrat, congrats but that’s a loss also wink

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By 3744theron, November 4, 2009 at 7:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Keep sleeping Ruth, if that’s what you want to do.  But if Obama doesn’t wake up, he’ll go down in history as a total failure.  Obama has done nothing for jobs (forget about creating them, how about saving them) or the average Jill/Joe. 

He still talks a good line, but spends most of his administration’s time on an almost worthless health “reform.”  He echoes McCain in Michigan, telling them the jobs aren’t coming back.  The promise of “green jobs” and retraining is so much bullshit.

I’m afraid he, like most Dems and essentially all Repubs, is globalist—i.e., an anti-American.  This was our great hope?

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By rico, suave, November 4, 2009 at 1:21 pm Link to this comment


The progressive left, miniscule as it is, were waiting in line for their welfare checks.

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By Samson, November 4, 2009 at 10:22 am Link to this comment

I would be interested in some exit poll numbers that show what the progressive left was doing in these races.

If they just shifted from enthusiastic support for Obama and the corporate Democrats, to a more frustrated ‘stay-at-home’, that alone hurts the Democrats massively.

Of course, what we really need in the 2010 elections is an active, organized, and extremely pissed-off progressive left that stops backing pro-war corporate Democrats and instead supports their own independent candidates.

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By RdV, November 4, 2009 at 10:04 am Link to this comment

Keep in mind that Obama was actively campaigning for ex-Goldman Sachs CEO and that was supposed to elevate his odds. That is what they were banking on. Obama swept in with majorities when Republicans were at their weakest, marginalized and repudiated—yet Obama sought to bow before them and ignore his mandate. You can gloss over it with your own damage-control analysis, but linger in denial at your own risk.

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By rico, suave, November 4, 2009 at 8:54 am Link to this comment

Dear Ruth,

Shall I also ignore the “orgy of analysis” which accompanied the ouster of W and friends last year? Don’t answer. I already have. The simple answer is that Obama wasn’t so much as elected, as Bush was rejected.

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By Inherit The Wind, November 4, 2009 at 4:36 am Link to this comment

I once lived in Virginia and I live in New Jersey.
I can only guess at Virginia, where no governor can run for re-election so it’s a new race every time.  The new guy there painted himself as that vanishing breed: a moderate Republican in the mold of John Warner.  Plus the last two governors were Democratic.

In New Jersey, many people have been disappointed with Corzine, who has raised taxes but hasn’t really cleaned up many of the state’s problems.  Of course, that’s based on the assumption anyone could do it in 4 years.  Still, this has been more of an anti-Corzine vote than a pro-Christie vote.  NJ has tended to change parties every 8 years and the Dems, with the McSleazy scandal, Acting Governor Codey’s refusal to go for his own 4 year shot, and Corzine’s less than effectual government meant it was time.

Factor into that Daggett, the independent who drew 6% while advocating policies similar to Corzine’s and Christie’s win by 4% shows that only a narrow margin separated Christie from Corzine.

I think additional blame is heaped on Corzine for having been from Goldman, Sachs (Paulsen is his mortal enemy, having pushed him out), but STILL unable to manage the state’s finances.

Hopefully, our Democratic lege will keep Christie from inflicting too much damage, like the last Christie to hold the governer’s chair inflicted. (Christie Whitman, who left us saddled with a Bush-like state debt).

Curiously, in upstate NY, the Dems won the traditional GOP seat DESPITE the influx of Palin, Limbaugh and all the other Fox type crud.  Maybe they figured if these folks drove the REPUBLICAN candidate to pull out as “not conservative enough” they weren’t interested in their district at all.  But that’s just a W.A.G. on my part.

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