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Tuesday's results are open to (careful) interpretation

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:27 AM

History is replete with politicians and political parties that misinterpreted the meaning of elections. President Obama and GOP leaders are in danger of doing so, too.

For Republicans, it's the classic problem of overinterpreting the mandate of an election. For the president, it's the risk of underinterpreting the message that voters delivered Tuesday.

The talking points for the day were set before the ballots were fully counted Tuesday night. The White House and congressional Republicans said the same thing: Americans want us to work together. That is the easy part. For the victors, the rules require no gloating. For the losers, humility is the order of the day.

It took the president nearly an hour at his Wednesday news conference to open up, describing the results as "a shellacking" and acknowledging that his relationship with the American people "has gotten rockier and tougher" over the past two years.

For most of the rest of the hour, however, he sounded little different than he had before the election - unwilling, it seemed, to consider whether he had moved too far to the left for many voters who thought he was a centrist when he ran in 2008.

History tells the president not to panic. Ronald Reagan suffered serious midterm losses in 1982 and won reelection in one of the nation's biggest landslides. Bill Clinton looked flattened after 1994, when Republicans ended 40 years of Democratic rule in the House and added the Senate as well. He, too, easily won a second term two years later. Obama referred to both in his news conference.

But Tuesday's results showed just how much work Obama has to do to turn around his presidency. He has lost touch with many people. His coalition is now badly fractured: Neither young people nor African Americans showed up Tuesday in numbers approaching their turnout in 2008. Democrats disappeared in some big states as the number of voters dropped dramatically.

Losing independents

Independents didn't just defect from Democrats - they deserted them in droves. If there is one number from all the exit polls that leaps out, it is from Ohio, where independents went for Republican Rob Portman, who won the Senate race, by a staggering 39 percentage points. In the state's gubernatorial election, independents backed winner John Kasich by 16 points. Overall, independents voted Tuesday for Republicans by a margin of 18 points. Two years ago, Democrats won them by eight points.

Independents continue to swing back and forth. Obama may hope they will be back in his column by 2012, if the economy has recovered. But the message from independents was unhappiness not only with the results of Obama's economic and domestic agendas but also with the agendas themselves. According to exit polls, 57 percent of independent voters said the president's policies will hurt the country in the long run. Just 38 percent said they will help.

When he ran for president, Obama was a political phenomenon. There is little likelihood that he can rekindle the magic of 2008 and his extraordinary campaign. Two years as president during some of the most difficult times the country has experienced in many years have taken their toll on the relationship between the president and the public.

Those who doubted him from the start are now hard-core in their opposition. Many of those who were inspired by his candidacy are, at a minimum, let down. Those who were merely hopeful have lost hope. Which means that he must find a new way to connect.

Obama has suffered few such setbacks in his life. With the exception of a loss in his first race for Congress, he has always arrived ahead of schedule on a career path that has moved at an astonishing pace from community organizer to Illinois state senator to U.S. senator to president.

What happened Tuesday represents the biggest and broadest rebuke he has ever received. Asked at his news conference Wednesday afternoon how it feels, he said, "It feels bad."

Obama has great faith in himself, which may serve him well in this time of travail, but also could compound his problems. During the presidential campaign, he was known for taking victories and losses in stride, never too down in the darkest moments, as after the New Hampshire primary, or too exuberant when he deserved to bask in victory, as on the night he was elected. Steadiness in the face of adversity will be essential in the months ahead.

At the same time, that sense of self-confidence risks understating what happened Tuesday. It was Obama, after all, who was resistant to advice from some of his team not to go so fast in 2009 and 2010, particularly on health-care reform. If Obama can stay unruffled by the slings of cable chatter, minor setbacks and the slow pace of recovery, the danger is that he still remains too detached from the crowd - and from the people who elected him.

His message this fall was that he and his party had done a lot that people didn't yet know about. That suggested a lack of gratitude on voters' part. He also suggested that in hard times, people are hard-wired not to think rationally. That echoed his description of the economically hard-pressed being "bitter" and "clinging" to guns and religion.

Voters wondered whether Obama really understands them, and he now has two years to show that he does.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP leaders have sought in the early hours after their victory to assure people that they do not regard the results as a genuine affirmation of the Republican brand. But if history is any guide, hubris could quickly set in, in which case they will have trouble avoiding the conclusion that this election was a broad endorsement of their agenda.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said as much when he suggested that Democrats hadn't gotten the message Tuesday. "We're determined to stop the agenda Americans have rejected and to turn the ship around," he said.

Distrust of GOP

But voters still view the GOP with distrust. The independents who so soundly backed the party's candidates Tuesday are as disdainful of Republicans as they are of Democrats. According to the exit polls, 58 percent of independents said they view Democrats unfavorably, and 57 percent said they view Republicans unfavorably.

Republicans have challenged Obama by arguing that he has governed from the left while the country is center-right. But will Republicans interpret Tuesday's results by lurching too far to the right? They may see in exit polls that 41 percent of voters called themselves conservatives, a high-water mark, and say the country has shifted dramatically.

The party's center of gravity has certainly shifted, but has the entire country? Republicans now have a hard-right base in a country that still prefers its politics closer to the center. Pleasing the base and the newly elected conservatives, while staying focused on the middle, is the leadership's first task.

Republicans may have been ill-served by the primary process. The primaries produced candidates, many with tea party connections, who could not withstand the scrutiny of voters, even in a year in which those voters were more predisposed to back Republicans.

Because of either their eccentric styles - think Delaware's Christine O'Donnell - or their extreme conservatism - think Nevada's Sharron Angle - these tea party favorites were not ready for prime time. That may have cost the GOP Senate seats in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado, where Sen. Michael Bennet (D) defeated Ken Buck. That also may allow Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to sneak back into the Senate in a write-in campaign after losing her primary to Joe Miller, who was backed by the tea party and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Republicans cannot count on the same electorate in 2012. The percentage of white voters was 78 percent Tuesday. Two years ago, it was 74 percent. If the electorate of 2008 had shown up Tuesday, Republicans still would have gained seats, but far fewer.

That doesn't diminish the historic nature of what the GOP accomplished in this election, but it is a reminder that this country remains highly polarized and unsettled in the center. That's why misreading Tuesday's election results is dangerous for both sides.

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