The non-referendum

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009 9:26 AM

To hear some pundits tell it, the earth moved yesterday.

Yes, the outcome of two gubernatorial races and one congressional contest in Plattsburgh, N.Y., are such a huge deal that they warranted full-blown election-night cable coverage last night and big newspaper analyses in the morning papers.

Now that the results are in, of course, the national press is free to ignore what Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie actually do in Richmond and Trenton for the next four years, unless someone gets indicted or is found with a mistress on the public payroll.

It was, to be sure, a good day for the Republicans. The more thoughtful pundits have tempered their remarks, saying that the 2009 results offer limited clues to how President Obama is faring. But let's face it, there's a huge hype machine out that's been pumping up the national significance of these off-year results. Because if the contests don't have national, even cosmic, significance, then why would anyone in the other 48 states care? What would underemployed political reporters have to write? How would they get on the air?

Imagine if this handful of races took place during next year's midterms. How much national attention would Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell get? How much national attention would NY-23 get? That's my point.

Now obviously, these contests don't take place in a vacuum. Obama repeatedly campaigned in New Jersey for Jon Corzine. The White House criticized the Deeds effort in Virginia. If all the Democrats had won, administration officials and liberal pundits would be proclaiming a great vote of confidence in the president. Instead, it's Republicans and conservatives who are doing the bragging (except for the upstate New York district where the GOP candidate bailed and the Democrat pulled it out).

I still cling to the view that local races turn mostly on local personalities and local issues. The exit polls basically invalidated much of the journalistic buildup, with majorities in Virginia (55 percent) and New Jersey (60 percent) saying Obama was not a factor in their vote and the rest closely divided.

Whether Obama gets a health-care bill, and what kind of bill he gets, will ultimately be far more important to his first term than the Tuesday contests. But could the media cacophony affect the political climate, in a classic self-fulfilling prophecy?

LAT: "Republicans seized the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday, giving the GOP a psychological boost heading into next year's midterm elections. . . .

"Republicans were quick to cast their wins as a referendum on the president and a severe setback for Obama. But any meaning was muddied by differences among Tuesday's assorted campaigns, which were shaped more by personalities and parochial interests than any overarching themes."

NYT: "The Republican victories in the races for New Jersey and Virginia governors put the party in a stronger position to turn back the political wave President Obama unleashed last year, setting the stage for Republicans to raise money, recruit candidates and ride the excitement of an energized base as the party heads into next year's midterm elections."

WP: "Off-year elections can be notoriously unreliable as predictors of the future, but as a window on how the political landscape may have changed in the year since President Obama won the White House, Tuesday's Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey delivered clear warnings for the Democrats."

Washington Times: "In a sign that there's more trouble ahead for Democrats, voters in New Jersey and Virginia said they were driven by the economy and spending, and Republicans said their showing on Tuesday gives them momentum heading into the 2010 congressional elections."

USA Today: "In the past, off-year elections haven't been a reliable indicator of how the president's party will fare in the future. However, surveys of voters as they left the polls in Virginia showed that the coalition Obama forged didn't turn out: Blacks made up one in five voters in 2008 but only one in seven this time; young people under 30 were one in five voters in 2008 but one in 10 now."

That's what too many folks forget about these off-years: It's a different, and much smaller, electorate.

Slate's John Dickerson: "Washington Republicans have been trying to nationalize these gubernatorial elections: Voters were reacting to Obama's policies, they say. That's a stretch. Neither Republican candidate tried to run against Obama. (In Virginia, Bob McDonnell actually praised Obama when he won the Nobel Peace Prize.) But all this talk about Obama also obscures a better message: For the GOP, the stronger argument coming out of the 2009 elections is that voters are embracing Republican ideas. The GOP won in a purple state and in a solidly Democratic state."

Walter Shapiro says Tuesday's results don't really matter -- except that they do:

"Even when it looked like the Democrats would be winning everything except Virginia, I have been arguing here at Politics Daily that two East Coast governor's races and an odd-ball congressional contest do not make up a valid national sample of anything.

"But in politics -- unlike rational forms of human endeavor -- perceptions and reality tend to fuse. As Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said Monday at a reporters' breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, 'In reality, I think 2009 says almost nothing about 2010.' But Mellman did admit that a Democratic wipe-out would provoke 'a certain amount of depression and soul-searching' in the party magnified by the 'overboard generalizations' in the media."

Sweeping generalizations by Us? Really?? Ya think?

"All this might be a minor media blip -- one that might fill the pre-Thanksgiving void on cable television -- if political insiders (those not sophisticated about sample size and trends) were not inclined to take them so seriously. It is easy to imagine moderate congressional Democrats detecting in a potential GOP sweep an argument for trying to water down Obama's health-care bill. In similar fashion, Republican fund-raisers may have a new argument to woo back once dispirited major donors."

Here's a Rasmussen poll I regard as totally meaningless:

"Americans are a little less enthusiastic about the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama this time around.

"A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 45% of adults say they would be at least somewhat likely to vote for Obama if he was up for reelection right now. Forty-nine percent (49%) say they would be unlikely to vote for the president's reelection."

Okay. But candidates generally run against other candidates, mutual warfare ensues, and voters choose between them -- not between an incumbent and some hypothetical alternative.

Oh, and you want to know the race that the press absolutely botched?

"The mayoral race turned into an unexpected squeaker last night, with Mayor Bloomberg barely edging past Democratic rival Bill Thompson to win a third term," says the New York Post.

"Fueled by a self-funded $100 million war chest, Bloomberg was widely expected to crush his underfunded opponent -- becoming only the fourth New York City mayor in history to achieve the third-term milestone.

"But with 100 percent of the vote in, Bloomberg had a mere 5-point victory -- 51 percent to Thompson's 46."

The billionaire mayor outspent his little-known foe 13 to 1, but reporters mostly missed the wave of anti-Bloomberg sentiment against a man who changed the city's term-limits law so he could run a third time.

Back to the Campaign

I'm always most curious about how campaigns handle crisis moments behind the scenes. In another excerpt from the new David Plouffe book, the former campaign manager recalls what happened after Obama said small-town residents were bitter and clung to guns and religion -- words that were reported by a HuffPost blogger:

"I couldn't imagine a worse context for him to have made such boneheaded comments: standing in a room full of wealthy donors in San Francisco -- to much of the country a culturally extreme and elitist city with far-out views -- speaking in anthropological terms about the middle of the country; describing the setting, it really couldn't sound much worse.

"I called Obama immediately. He began to make a somewhat halfhearted effort to explain what had happened. First, he focused on the fact that he did not know he was being taped. 'C'mon,' I said to him, 'in the world we live in, you know there's a terrific chance that anything you say anywhere could be captured.'

"He quickly shifted gears. 'It should be clear what I was trying to say,' he argued. 'But I really did mangle the words. It didn't dawn on me at the time that I had misspoken, but looking at the transcript now, I really don't know how the hell I constructed my point like that.'

"I told him we would just have to fight through this. . . . He was very quiet. A moment later he was going into an event and we had to wrap up. 'I felt like we were really beginning to hit our stride again,' he said. 'And this will set us back again. I can't blame anyone but me for this. I'm sorry.' "

Arianna Huffington, reflecting on the book, sounds downright disillusioned, picking up on the decision backed by Plouffe "to have the campaign headquartered in Chicago because 'D.C. is a swamp of conventional wisdom and insiders that can suck a campaign down, and we needed to think differently.' Maybe the answer to the last nine months is to move the White House to Chicago.

"Indeed, reading the book, I often found myself wondering what Candidate Obama would think of President Obama. Would he look at what the White House is doing and say, 'that's what I and my supporters worked so hard for?'

"How did the candidate who got into the race because he'd decided that 'the core leadership had turned rotten' and that 'the people were getting hosed' become the president who has decided that the American people can only have as much change as Olympia Snowe will allow?

"How did the candidate who told a stadium of supporters in Denver that 'the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result' become the president who has surrounded himself with the same old players trying the same old politics, expecting a different result?"

One answer, of course, is that achieving change is really, really hard.

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