The 2011 election: What it meant (and what it didn’t)

at 03:23 PM ET, 11/09/2011

There is a tendency among the political press corps — and the political world more generally — to search for the common string that ties together a national election.


Issue 2 opponents cheer at a rally co-sponsored by the Cleveland Teachers Union and We Are Ohio in Cleveland as Issue 2 as they hear election results sounding the defeat of Issue 2 in the Ohio general election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
At times — the elections of 2006, 2008 and 2010 come to mind — this is not only easy but right. Each of those elections were decided by a set of national issues that drove voters to choose Democrats overwhelmingly in 2006 and 2008 and Republicans equally overwhelmingly in 2010.

At other times, finding a single theme that explains what happened in a national election is far more difficult. (That, of course, doesn’t mean we don’t try to do it anyway.)

So which was 2011? Partisans, not surprisingly, insisted the message was clear — though they disagreed on what that message actually is.

“Voters are rejecting the extreme agenda of the Republican Party, and the organizing efforts of progressive volunteers and supporters are making a difference,” concluded Jeremy Byrd, the national field director of President’s Obama’s re-election campaign in a memo distributed to reporters this morning.

Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer responded that “Republicans had a great night and a great month”, noting victories in the Virginia state assembly and Senate as well as the Mississippi governor’s race.

Taken broadly, Democrats had a nice bounce-back from the devastating losses of the 2010 cycle. But, a closer look at the major contests of Tuesday night — Ohio’s repeal of Republican Gov. John Kasich’s ban on collective bargaining, Mississippi’s personhood amendment, the Kentucky governor’s race and the battle for control of the Virginia state Senate — suggests that what the races “mean” is largely dependent on where you stand on the partisan spectrum.

Our detailed look at each contest — and what it meant or didn’t — is below.

* Ohio Issue 2

Why it meant something: This was a massive priority for national labor unions in a 2012 swing state. And, after coming up short in Wisconsin earlier this year, Ohio represented the best (last?) chance for unions to prove they are a potent force in electoral politics. Unlike in past swings and misses, the sometimes-fractious labor coalition stayed united and spent more than $25 million on an effective campaign that led to a sweeping defeat for Kasich and Ohio Republicans. “Tonight’s numbers suggest that the coalition of voters that delivered Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 can still be coalesced and mobilized around a core Democratic issue,” wrote Democratic labor strategist Steve Rosenthal in a memo analyzing the Ohio results.

Why it didn’t: Roughly 3.4 million Ohioans voted on Issue 2, a turnout number that pales in comparison to the 5.6 million who cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential race in the state. Extrapolating broad conclusions about what Tuesday night tells us about the 2012 electorate in Ohio are complicated by that 2.2 million person difference. Labor and liberals were both highly energized to send the unpopular Kasich a message while the forces aligned behind the Republican governor were less well organized, funded and significantly less excited. Plus, Kasich, according to several smart GOP operatives, made a fundamental error when he included cops and firefighters in the collective bargaining ban. (Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker exempted them from the ban in his state’s law.)

* Mississippi Personhood (Amendment 26)

Why it meant something: Polling showed that the amendment would narrowly pass but instead it was soundly defeated, a sign that voters even in a conservative state like Mississippi felt it went too far. Its presence on the ballot also reminded abortion rights supporters across the country that although abortion isn’t a major topic in the national dialogue these days, the parties hold vastly different views on the proper restrictions on the procedure and a Republican Administration would represent an unwelcome change.

Why it didn’t:Mississippi isn’t on either parties’ swing state list in 2012 so an energized Democratic base in the state doesn’t matter much. And, the “personhood” movement is controversial even within the Republican party; outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) offered only a tepid endorsement of the amendment and many GOP strategists insisted that it is the wrong strategy for those whose eventual goal is to overturn Roe v. Wade. No Republican presidential nominee will spend much time (if any) talking about abortion or personhood in the general election next year.

* Kentucky governors race

Why it meant something: Gov. Steve Beshear was a Democrat running for a second term in a state that President Obama won just 41 percent in during the 2008 campaign. And yet, Beshear managed to win easily. His blueprint — hammer your Republican opponent early and often and talk about the positive things you have been able to accomplish over your first term — are a blueprint for Democrats up and down the ballot in 2012. And if a Democrat can win in Kentucky, why can’t the likes of Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill or Montana Sen. Jon Tester do the same in states that are less Republican in 2012?

Why it didn’t: The Republican nominee — David L. Williams — was a gruff campaigner (to put it nicely) who made enough mistakes on the campaign trail to all but hand Beshear a cudgel with which to batter him. Williams’ missteps allowed Beshear to turn the race from a referendum on his first four years in office to a choice between himself and a flawed Republican. The average GOP candidate won’t run as hapless a campaign as Williams and won’t give their Democratic so many openings through which to attack. Plus, it’s far easier for a governor to distance himself from Obama’s unpopularity than a member of Congress who is voting on the president’s priorities.

* Virginia state Senate

Why it meant something: Republicans look to have taken over the state Senate with a message focused almost entirely on tying suburban and exurban Democrats to President Obama. With Virginia set to be a — if not the — central battleground in the 2012 presidential election that suggests the incumbent starts in a far weaker position than his 2008 victory in the Commonwealth might suggest.

Why it didn’t: In the race that will decide control, the Republican nominee currently has an 86-vote lead. The narrowness of that result coupled with the fact that Republicans picked up only one other Democratic-held state Senate seat suggests that the outcome of the election in Virginia was something close to a draw. And if that’s the case, all we learned about Virginia on Tuesday night is what we already know: it’s going to be a very close contest in 2012.

 
Read what others are saying