Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What can we (over)read into yesterday's election results?

So yesterday was election day in America. Here in Virginia, voters chose Republican Bob McDonell, who is apparently crazy socially conservative, as our next governor over blue dog Democrat Creigh Deeds by around 59% to 41% (boo!). In the Great State of New Jersey, unpopular Democratic incumbent John Corzine lost his job as governor to moderate Republican (and fat man) Chris Christie circa 49% to 45%.

On the other hand, in New York's 23rd Congressional District (the northeast corner of the state up by the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain which includes the towns of Oswego and Plattsburg), Bill Owens became the first Democrat to hold this seat since the 1870s. He was up against a Conservative third-party candidate whom Sarah Palin campaigned for after the moderate Republican chosen in the primary bowed out of the race.

New York City Mayor Bloomberg was elected to a third term, winning around 51% of votes. This is a slim margin given that he spent over $30 million dollars campaigning, and he wasn't facing a strong opponent. And then in Maine (where my friend Leigh-Anne almost got her first speeding ticket on Saturday), 53% of voters cast their ballot in favor of repealing the state law authorizing gay marriage. (My source for all these numbers is

The Spin

So the one positive note for liberals, in yesterday's only contest for national office, is that the Democrats picked up another seat in the House (in an historically Republican district to boot). One might also say that the fact that there was a centrist Republican candidate and a conservative third-party candidate at one point in that race is possibly indicative of a division in the wider Republican party.

Meanwhile, right-wingers are celebrating the election of two new Republican governors and saying that -- together with the vote to repeal gay marriage in Maine -- this suggests that perhaps the pendulum is swinging back to the right and some independents and moderates who voted for Obama last November may be losing faith in Democratic leadership. But is this maybe reading too much into things? In reponse to AP articles entitled "GOP Sweep," Newsweek's Seth Colter Wallace wrote (in the Awl):

Wait: Virginia elected a conservative? And a moderate in New Jersey was able to unseat an unpopular incumbent? And a gay marriage thing that's never happened before also didn't happen last night? Well, it's a good thing you have me—Mr. or Ms. Political Analyst!—around to detail all the many troubling implications these developments carry for the guy on the national stage who received 69 million votes last year!

So what do I think? Well, first off, the idea that some of the multitude of swing voters who cast their ballot for Obama and the Democrats last year may be having doubts sounds plausible. To some folks who voted for Obama it may seem like nothing is getting done (did you see that SNL sketch?) or that things aren't getting done fast enough. Others may now have reservations about the Democratic agenda (especially healthcare reform) after hearing a lot of vocal criticism from the right.

But do yesterday's results really support this theory? It's hard to read too much into the New Jersey governor race for various reason (both candidates were moderates, Corzine was unpopular and plagued by corruption scandals, etc.); Virginia, however, seems more promising for those wishing to prognosticate about future elections. Before last year, Virginia had been a solid red state (the last time they voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1964). But last November Virginia went to Obama, due in part to a fierce campaign offensive in the state, and perhaps also to demographic shifts. But now Virginia just elected a conservative, Republican governor (the Republicans actually won all the state offices up for grabs in VA): does this mean some of those Obama voters have abandoned the Democratic party?

Possibly. It's also possible that many Virginians based their decision on local issues. Likewise, I'd argue that Creigh Deeds -- a conservative, blue dog Democrat -- probably didn't energize the party's liberal base and that probably affected things somewhat.  The Wall Street Journal tells us that many independents voted for the Republican ticket this time, but also that the young people and Blacks who elected Obama were not enamored with Deeds.  So I don't know!

The Exit Polls

Last night I inadvertently caught a few irritating minutes of ABC Nightline where George Stephanopolous parsed the exit polls looking for clues. Ugh, exit polls! These are always used in order to make upsetting generalizations such as "people in red states [such as Louisiana where I lived at the time] are more likely to go to church and cast their vote based on 'values' rather than issues such as the economy, foreign wars, etc."

Incidentally, I was totally asked to participate in one of these yesterday morning as I was leaving the polling place, but I declined since I was in a hurry to get to work and I didn't really know/care all that much about the candidates in this election (That's right, AND I STILL VOTED! Want to make something of it?!). But now I half wish I did stop and put in my two cents.

So anyway, what did Nightline tell us. Question #1 was whether voters approved of President Obama: in NJ 57% answered "yes" and in VA 49% said they support the pres. Eh, not TOO troubling for Obama: that's a good approval rating among NJ voters and just shy of fifty percent in the Old Dominion (he might want to keep his eye on that one).

Question #2 was whether their opinion of the Pres affected their vote, and a majority in both states (60% in NJ and 56% in VA said "no"). Yeah, that right there tells you why the media shouldn't interpret every state election as a vote of confidence for the party in power in Washington.

"BUT WAIT," says Nightline, "let's look at Question #3 -- that's the big one! 89% of NJ voters and 85% of VA voters polled say they are worried about the economy. It's the economy stupid!" That last sentence was actually a direct quote spoken by dumbass Terry Moran. To this I say: NO SHIT! We're in a fucking recession; if they asked me if I was worried about the economy I would have answered "yes" too, and I still support Obama and the Democrats. What I'm saying is that the fact that someone is worried about the economy doesn't necessarily tell you how they're going to vote in the midterm elections next year. It's party neutral.  An article I read in the times online uses these numbers to support their article entitled "New Jersey and Virginia tells Obama -- we blame you for the economy" but that is quite a leap.

Stephanopolous' suggestion that yesterday's results might give some Democrats pause and might even lead to less votes by squeamish Congressmen in favor of healthcare reform is somewhat more sound. But still, we're talking about two governor races! People shouldn't read too much into this.

Patchwork Nation

You know what else I hate? Have you ever checked out that Patchwork Nation shit? This is a project sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor which divides the nation's counties into 12 different types of communities with names like "campus and careers" (lots of college students and young workers), "minority central," "boom town," "industrial metropolis" and "evangelical epicenter."

It is kind of interesting, but then I feel like they make broad statements about what's going on in "teenytowns" or whatever across the country and about how people there tend to vote. I think that this is just another way (albeit a somewhat more precise way) of making generalizations. For example: Arlington County, VA where I live and Westchester County, NY where my mom lives are both "Monied Burbs," but I think there are way more young professionals who are either single or just starting a family in Arlington and more older people in Westchester, and I doubt that we vote the same way on different issues. Likewise, New Orleans, LA (Orleans Parish) and neighboring Jefferson Parish are both labelled as "Minority Central," but there is a big difference in those two populations. John Kerry won over 75% of the votes in Orleans Parish and just 38% in the JP.


We shouldn't read too much into last night's results. When the smoke cleared there are two more Republican governors out there, gays can't get married in Maine anymore, and the Democrats picked up a seat in the House. VA and NJ might suggest support for the Democrats is waning among swing voters, but the numbers seem to discourage any big statements. Likewise, the race in NY-23 suggests that there may be a struggle for power between the conservative and centrist wings of the Republican party.

One thing we can all agree on, however, is that the media should stop trying to make every local election into a referendum on the party in power in Washington, and they should stop making gross generalizations about what Americans think based on exit polls.

Image: photo of Bob McDonnell celebrating his victory by Mark Wilson/Getty Images found on timesonline.

1 comment:

Stevie Y said...

Hey Meeg,

Excellent point on Patchwork. I'm actually the director of the project. The point is to use demos to try and group counties into like categories. So, yes, there is a certain amount of generalization. That can't be helped when you put 3,141 things into 12 categories. In fact, in some ways it is the point.

Every media organization generalizes. It's a way of trying to make sense of things. We want to do it with some statistical reasoning behind it. Remember people talking about "Appalachia" as a region in 2008? You ever look at how large Appalachia is?

And not every two places vote the same, as you point out on Jefferson and Orleans. There also are outliers -- as Orleans was. But if you look closely as the aggregated results you do see real trends.

Anyway, thanks for reading. And if you have any questions please email me at