AP Analysis: Off-Year Election Lessons Will Shape 2010 Campaign

November 5, 2009 - 5:59 AM
What we learned from the off-year elections: The president's influence is limited, independents rule, incumbents beware, issues trump ideology and, once more, "It's the economy, stupid."
Washington (AP) - What we learned from the off-year elections: The president's influence is limited, independents rule, incumbents beware, issues trump ideology and, once more, "It's the economy, stupid."
 
Also: Republicans can win -- even if they lack a leader and their base is cracked. And this certainly isn't the Democratic-friendly political environment of 2006 and 2008 when the party captured control of Congress and the White House.
 
The first Election Day of Barack Obama's presidency was a big night for Republicans, who recaptured governorships in the swing state of Virginia and the Democratic stronghold of New Jersey. Democrats won two races for vacant congressional seats, including one in upstate New York that had been long held by Republicans and that exposed a GOP divide.
 
So, what did we learn about politics, people and their priorities from the handful of races on Tuesday? And how will those lessons shape the maneuvering of Republicans and Democrats ahead of 2010 midterms, when Obama's prestige will be put to the test across the country?
 
The results don't seem to bode well for Obama and his party heading into a high-stakes year as they look to advance an expensive domestic agenda while protecting the Democrats' grip on House, Senate and gubernatorial seats nationwide. They'll try to win over people in a country clouded by a job-killing recession, divided over war and, as Tuesday's results showed, fed up with the powers that be -- no matter the political party.
 
Among the lessons learned:
 
--OBAMA'S POLITICAL POWER IS LIMITED
 
"Yes, we can!" has turned into "Yes, we can -- if we feel like it!"
 
The broad coalition -- minorities, young people, first-time voters, Republican crossovers and independents -- that fueled Obama's victory was a 2008 phenomenon; it can't be counted on if the man himself is not on the ballot. Even though Obama personally implored his supporters to turn out in droves, voters rejected incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey and Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds in Virginia.
 
That could be a problem for Democratic lawmakers in swing states and conservative-to-moderate districts next fall because Obama won't be on the ballot to drive up turnout. Candidates carried into office in the Obama wave will be vulnerable in 2010 -- with no lifeguard to help. And that could influence how those lawmakers vote in Congress in the meantime -- perhaps threatening the president's priorities.
 
With Obama unable to guarantee their political survival, what's the incentive for them to back his legislative agenda?
 
--INDEPENDENTS ARE KINGMAKERS
 
Voters who don't claim a political party again proved their value by propelling Republicans to victory in Virginia and New Jersey one year after carrying Obama to the White House.
 
Independents are, well, truly independent -- and, thus, are extraordinarily fickle.
 
Last year, hope and change tilted them toward Democrats. This year, anger and frustration tilted them to Republicans. They broke 2-1 for GOP victors Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia.
 
Issues, from jobs to taxes to government spending, drive this center of the electorate, so candidates who talk about what independents care most about will win the middle and, thus, elections.
 
Democrats must figure out a way to bring independents back into their fold -- or risk huge losses next fall.
 
Still, Republicans must be mindful of the volatile nature of public attitudes, for independents who have moved toward the GOP since last fall could just as easily move back to the Democrats by next November.
 
--INCUMBENTS BEWARE
 
This means you, Mr. President, as well as Democrats who control Congress and even Republicans in certain seats. If you're in office, voters are coming after you.
 
In the midst of recession, people vented their frustrations by ousting Democrats from power in New Jersey and Virginia. And Democrat Bill Owens won a House seat held for decades by Republicans in a special election in upstate New York.
 
Also, in New York City, independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg barely won a third term against a little-known, poorly funded Democratic challenger. Voters generally approved of Bloomberg's job performance but resented his aggressive effort to get the city's term limits law lifted and his spending as much as $100 million of his own money to stay in power.
 
Anger at both parties also manifested itself in third-party candidacies, including in New Jersey. Still, independent Chris Daggett faced traditional obstacles to becoming a serious threat: financial and organizational difficulties.
 
--ISSUES TRUMP IDEOLOGY; THE ECONOMY TRUMPS ALL
 
Voters have spoken: Issues like God, guns and gays take a back seat in a recession.
 
In Virginia, McDonnell proved that a socially conservative Republican can win in a Democratic-trending state if the focus is on pocketbook issues. Deeds went after McDonnell over conservative positions on so-called "values issues" but the Republican didn't take the bait. In New Jersey, Christie -- a moderate Republican -- found success by sticking to core local issues, taxes and jobs. Both winners de-emphasized social issues in favor of solutions for problems people were facing in their own backyards, jobs, transportation and taxes among them.
 
Voters rewarded them; Both McDonnell and Christie were seen as running more positive campaigns.
 
In polling-place surveys, a jaw-dropping 85 percent in Virginia and 89 percent in New Jersey said they were worried about the economy -- even though there are signs of recovery. But jobs aren't yet returning, and trouble looms for Democrats if people still aren't feeling improvement next fall.
 
As the sign famously said in Bill Clinton's campaign war room in 1992, while there might be a temptation to focus on other issues, always remember, "It's the economy, stupid."
 
--2006 AND 2008 ARE GONE; REPUBLICANS CAN WIN
 
The warm and fuzzy feelings voters had for Democrats in back-to-back national elections are history.
 
George W. Bush as a political punching bag doesn't work anymore; Democrats tried to use him against Christie and failed.
 
And now, after riding a wave of change to power, Democrats are the incumbents facing an electorate rich with anti-incumbent sentiment.
 
Of course, individual candidates matter, too, and in New Jersey and Virginia, Democrats ran candidates whom voters just didn't seem to like much.
 
Victories in both states have given Republicans a much-needed morale boost. And the wins proved that Republicans can find success if their candidates gravitate toward the middle and are responsive to the voters' mood. That approach allowed the GOP to successfully woo independents.
 
But the defeat in New York's 23rd Congressional District, after a nasty race in which the GOP-picked candidate dropped out under pressure from conservatives, served as yet another warning sign: The Republicans aren't out of the woods either.