For Democrats, the election’s most worrying result was not in Virginia, New Jersey, or Maine. It was the special election in CA-10.
At first glance, this might seem a bit puzzling. Democrats won that election, after all – and they won it by a comfortable 10% margin.
Yet, when compared to previous elections, this result is quite an underperformance. Barack Obama, for instance, won this congressional district by three times that margin. Since 2002, moreover, former Democratic congressman Ellen Tauscher had never polled below 65% of the vote.
Moreover, the election revealed more about the national mood than, say, Virginia or New Jersey. Those races were heavily dependent on local factors (e.g. the quality of the Deeds campaign, the unpopularity of Governor Jon Corzine). In CA-10, you had two low-recognition candidates and little publicity; it was closer to a generic ballot poll.
If CA-10 could be characterized as a generic ballot poll, then Democrats should be extremely worried. In 2009, CA-10 went from a 30% Democratic victory to a 10% one: a 10-point shift to the right. Similar shifts were seen in New Jersey and Virginia; the electorate as a whole moved substantially to the right. The Democrats were very fortunate that Tuesday did not constitute a full-blown congressional election; they would have been crushed.
There is good news, however. Democratic weakness two days ago resulted more from an energized Republican base than a fundamental shift in the national mood. Republicans, motivated and unhappy, turned out; President Barack Obama’s coalition did not. The president still attains approval ratings in the low 50s – hardly the sign of an unpopular incumbent.
The bad news is that I am not sure if Mr. Obama’s coalition will turn out for the 2010 congressional elections. His voters have been curiously lethargic ever since his election; their low turn-out was how Senator Saxy Chambliss in Georgia went from a 3% general victory to a 14% run-off victory. Republicans, then, may do well next year.
In fact, I am not even sure Mr. Obama’s coalition will re-emerge in 2012, when he goes up for re-election. The president, after all, ran on a campaign of hope, change, and idealism. The difficult compromises forced by governing have tainted this brand, and it will inevitably continue to be diluted over the next three years. Obama’s 2008 coalition may go down as unique in American history, much like former President Jimmy Carter’s coalition.
I hope it will not. There is that word again.