Interpreting the 2009 Election

By Andrew Wolf

What can the results of the three key races in this past Tuesday’s election tell us about the national political landscape?

On one hand, off-year elections tend to be more about local candidates and local issues than anything else. And voters said so, with 56 percent of voters in Virginia and 60 percent in New Jersey claiming the President’s performance in office did not affect the way they voted. Indeed, the President’s approval ratings in both states are similar to what they were when he was elected. The state of the economy was a dominant issue, but so were property taxes and corruption in New Jersey and transportation in Virginia. It also should not come as a huge surprise that the Republican candidates triumphed in either state. In fact, the party that won the White House lost the gubernatorial race the following year in Virginia dating back to 1977 and in New Jersey since 1989.

On the other hand, President Obama carried New Jersey in 2008 by 16 points and won Virginia by 6 points. This year, Obama campaigned for both Democratic gubernatorial candidates, and they both lost; it marked the first time in 12 years that either New Jersey or Virginia elected a Republican Governor. The coalition profile the President put together in 2008 of young voters, first-time voters, and African-American voters failed to materialize. And this time Independent voters turned to the Republican candidate. In Virginia, Independents chose McDonnell 66-33 percent. In New Jersey, Independents broke for Christie 60-30.

And then there’s New York’s 23rd District. Democratic candidate Bill Owens defeated Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in a bizarre race that highlighted the split between moderate and conservative Republicans and could hold broader implications for the future of the Republican Party. Owens became the first Democrat since 1872 to represent the 23rd district.

Time will show the relationship between Tuesday’s results and the 2010 midterm elections. Still, the 2009 election raised some important questions concerning what will happen moving forward. On the Democratic side, can President Obama turnout Democratic voters in large numbers for the midterm elections, given that next year he will not be on the ballot? And will the losses in Virginia and New Jersey affect the President’s standing among more conservative members of the Democratic Party? On the Republican side, can the Party win in more moderate districts if it nominates conservative candidates? And can the Republican Party develop a national narrative that persuades and mobilizes voters to vote for Republican candidates?

There’s a strong anti-incumbent mood across the country. It remains to be seen which side will better channel the anger and concern among the electorate about the economy, healthcare, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into electoral gains.

For a roundup of Tuesday’s election results, click here.

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