Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Meaning of May Elections for November

May 19, 2010, 2:30 p.m.
[For BP disaster see, "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

What's Take-Away from May 18 Primary Elections?
(bought to you by*)

There were four elections yesterday, one each in Arkansas and Kentucky, and two in Pennsylvania. What do their outcomes tell us about November we didn't know before?

Very little.

What follows is just one, relatively uninformed, blogger's intuition; not the result of having worked in any of the campaigns, memorized the piles of polling data, or even having read a significant amount of others' commentary.

There are some things we at least thought we knew before the results were in.

"All politics is local." There are so many factors that help shape the outcome of a given congressional or senatorial primary, or general election, that drawing any national (or even local!) generalizations from their outcomes runs the risk of being wide of the mark.

Especially is this so in light of the fact that most outcomes are relatively close. When there are less than 10 points separating the candidates anything from cold or rainy weather to a last-minute news item could have made the difference. In such cases, for purposes of deriving meaning from an election, it's a little silly even to designate a "winner" and "loser," let alone to discard from consideration the "meaning" behind the votes of the 40 percent or more of the voters who supported the "loser."

An incumbent President's party tends to lose seats in the Senate and House during off-year elections.

Aside from that, incumbents tend to get re-elected. No matter how angry the public is with "Congress" in general, voters tend to think their own Member of Congress is OK. The number of Members who want to be re-elected, and are, is generally well above 90 percent.

Most districts are solidly either Democrat or Republican. The real contests occur in the ones that are neither.

Perhaps the largest percentage of voters consider themselves "independent" or third party.

On the other hand, those who vote in party primaries are necessarily more partisan, more concerned about party loyalty, candidates having "paid their dues" to the party, and the impact of primary choices on general election outcomes.

Overall election results tend to reflect the economy. When the economy is trending down, or seems stuck there, voters want "change" -- often manifested in ousting incumbents. When the economy is booming, or clearly recovering, they're less likely to "throw the rascals out" -- or even bother to vote.

Lengthy incumbency cuts both ways. There is at least a lingering concern on the part of voters that "old age" and too many decades in Washington may make an elected official less, rather than more, effective on their behalf. (This is, of course, offset by the increased power, and ability to help the state or district, that comes with seniority.) But it is especially so if constituents detect (whether true or not) a growing disconnect between the Washington elite lifestyle of the elected official and that of the residents of the local area.
My thinking is that nothing happened yesterday to change any of that conventional wisdom.

But there are two conclusions that at least some commentators seem to be drawing from yesterday's returns with which I really disagree. One is that the results reflect a turn to the right, a resurgence of conservatism -- and hope for the Republicans in November. The other is that what we witnessed was an anti-incumbent movement. (E.g., Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse, "Specter Defeat Signals a Wave Against Incumbents," New York Times, May 19, 2010, p. A1.)

Sestak's Victory Over Senator Arlen Spector: An Example of "Anti-Establishment, Anti-Incumbency"?

Voters are not in a good mood -- whether discouraged, depressed, angry or violent. Admittedly, that did not cut in favor of Spector's re-election.

But there were so many other factors at play in Spector's case that I think it is woefully overly simplistic to put the results in the "anti-incumbency" column.

For starters, he got 47 percent of the vote. That's not exactly a rout.

Bear in mind, this was a Republican Senator running in a Democratic Party primary! He only recently switched parties, and acknowledged he did it because there was no way he was going to get the Republican Party nomination. The switch enabled the winner, Congressman Joe Sestak to utilize a very effective commercial that left few if any Democrats unaware of Sestak's assertion that Specter was just a Republican opportunist.

Moreover, he was a five-term, 30-year, 80-year-old Senator. The political meaning from the ouster of a one-term incumbent Senator is one thing. But when a Senator has served as long as Specter, and has reached 80 years of age, to be voted out of office involves much more than mere "anti-incumbency."

Admittedly, "'close' only counts in horseshoes," and it really hurts to lose an election. But for what it's worth, under the circumstances, and against all the odds, Specter should take some considerable personal solace and satisfaction from the 47 percent vote of confidence, admiration, and appreciation that he was able to win as an 80-year-old Republican running in a Democratic primary.

How About Senator Blance Lincoln in Arkansas?

The meaning of the outcome in the Democratic Primary in Arkansas is a little more clear cut than the one in Pennsylvania. But it's still not unambiguous -- especially with regard to the assertions that yesterday's four elections represent a "swing to the conservative right" on the part of voters.

For starters, Lincoln "won" in the sense that she got more votes than the runner-up, Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter -- just not enough to prevent the need for a runoff, since she did not get 50 percent.

Second, the winner of the Republican Primary election, John Boozman, who defeated seven opponents, has been an Arkansas Representative in Congress since 2001. So that can scarcely be said to be the result of an "anti-establishment, anti-incumbent" vote.

Did Lincoln's failure to win outright illustrate the voters' move to the conservative right? No, the fact is that in her case it was exactly the opposite.

The SEIU and AFL-CIO weighed in heavily on the side of Halter precisely because she was perceived as being too conservative -- especially with her votes against healthcare reform, and her perceived support of the Wall Street banks. The voters wanted a more liberal candidate.

Republicans vs. Democrats in Congressman Jack Murtha's District

Following Democratic Congressman Jack Murtha's death, the only election yesterday pitting a Republican against a Democrat was in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District.

If an overwhelming Republican victory anywhere could have been seen as a harbinger of a national tectonic shift to the conservative right and a Republican sweep of the House in November it would have been this one.

On the other hand, the same could be said for the Democrats were they to win. Even though the 12th had been a Democratic district with Murtha, it also happens to be a district that went for Senator McCain over Obama a mere 18 months ago.

However conservative the district may be said to be, the majority did not vote for the Republican. The Democrat, Mark Critz (a former Murtha aide), won over a Republican businessman, Tim Burns, by a substantial 53 to 45 percent.

Incumbency was not in issue in that contest. But the issue of a possible shift -- from the Democratic Party, to a pro-conservative, Republican Party -- certainly was. And the verdict on that race would have to be that it just wasn't there for the conservative Republicans..

Paul's Win is Republicans' Problem -- Not Nation's or Democrats'

Rand Paul, son of Presidential candidate and Congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.), scored a 24-point Republican Senate primary victory over Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson -- the favorite of the Republican establishment, up to and including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Thus, while it contributes nothing to an understanding of "anti-incumbency" (as neither held the Senate office), it certainly does say something about the division within the Republican Party between the Republican establishment and the anti-Establishment, Tea Party, wing of opposition.

Given that this was a Republican Primary it necessarily tells us little about the conservative, anti-Establishment leanings of Democrats and Independents. Indeed, there are those who believe that Paul will be much easier for the Democratic Party candidate to beat than Trey Grayson would have been. And Tea Party membership, to the extent it can be measured, seems to be disproportionately made up of those who would otherwise be (or still are) Republicans.

But we scarcely needed this Primary to know that there is a schism between the conservative, right wing, take no prisoners, anything to bring down Obama, just say no wing of the GOP, and the Establishment, moderate, reasonable, come let us reason together wing. Nor have we been unaware that the former seems to be gaining adherents over the latter.

In sum, they were an interesting four elections, but when Chris Matthews says, "Tell me something I don't know," I'm not sure what one can offer based on the results.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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1 comment:

Nick said...

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