Results Won't Change Congress, but Election Has Many Implications

Unfortunately, because of lead times, I have to write this long before the results of the Tuesday elections are in. So I cannot make intelligent post-dictions, much less stunning predictions, given that at least two of the three big contests--the New Jersey gubernatorial race and New York's 23rd Congressional district--are as I write too close to call.

But I can make some observations about the impact of these off-off-year elections on politics and policy ahead, which are relevant for Congress now and in 2010, and for the parties as we move forward.

The first is in some ways a truism. Parse out the causes of outcomes in these elections, and the largest variable by far is local forces--the candidates, the personalities, local issues, local political history. Right up there is the state of the economy, especially for gubernatorial races involving incumbents. Lagging substantially behind would be national forces and the president.

An in-party's incumbent governor in a bad local economy will lose for that reason, not because of a national tide.

To be sure, the national forces are not negligible. The president's party usually has headaches in midterms, not least because of a typical pattern of an intensity gap; the out-party's strongest adherents get increasingly angry, intense and motivated as time passes and they realize how awful it is to be out of power; the in-party's strongest adherents grow progressively more disillusioned as their sky-high hopes that their president would give them everything on their wish lists get shattered or hopelessly diluted. If you are angry, you want to get up, go outside and punch somebody. If you are disappointed, you want to get in bed and pull the covers over your head. In low-turnout elections, that is enough to make a big difference.

This year the partisan generic voting gap for all potential voters is little different than it was when Obama and his Democrats won in a landslide--i.e., a sizable Democratic advantage. But the advantage narrows significantly for registered voters and essentially disappears for likely voters.

Even so, those local factors still are the most important. Bad candidates can blow intensity advantages; good candidates can overcome intensity deficits. An out-party's incumbent governor in a bad local economy will probably need more than an intensity advantage to prevail. An in-party's incumbent governor in a bad local economy will lose for that reason, not because of a national tide.

If a party gets swept, not surprisingly, it will emphasize the idiosyncratic, local nature of the contests; if a party sweeps, it will frame the elections as a referendum on the president and his party. In the latter case, that interpretation is usually widely shared, and it has consequences.

If the Democrats have been swept in the big three, no matter the lousy campaign of Creigh Deeds; the New Jersey trifecta of a miserable economy, high property taxes and the uncharismatic governor; and the long-standing Republican tilt of New York's 23rd district, the storyline will be that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party suffered a big rebuff, and that Republicans are back in the game big time.

In the short run, that would mean lots of energy for Republicans in Congress and lots of Pepto-Bismol for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Republicans will believe that their strategy of uniting to block any and all Obama or Democratic initiatives was a resounding success and will intensify their efforts to keep all their Members in line. At the same time, vulnerable House and Senate Democrats, looking toward next year, are going to be much more nervous, and that makes corralling votes on health care reform, climate change or financial regulation more difficult--even as the need for party unity is greater than ever.

On the other hand, if Bill Owens (D) has prevailed in New York, after an embarrassing Republican divide, and Jon Corzine (D) has prevailed in New Jersey thanks in major part to an Independent candidate drawing votes from Republican Chris Christie, the prevailing storyline will be how Republican fratricide and conservative pugnacity blew a big chance for a party win. While that will not energize vulnerable freshman Democrats or skeptical Blue Dogs to stay with their party on tough votes, it will not add to their underlying nervousness and may make it easier for Reid, Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel to keep the troops in line.

Despite the big push by Democrats to get Owens over the top in New York, I am sure there are some Democratic strategists who would be secretly happy if Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party nominee, won. A Hoffman victory would mobilize many more arch-conservative candidates to take on moderate Republicans in primaries or by trying to get on the ballot on a third-party or independent line. Of course, few states are as amenable to such challenges as New York. But each challenge drains party resources and splits supporters. If I were heading up the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, I might be tempted to try to get some of my most ardent supporters to channel money to the Club for Growth to encourage more such challenges.

Nothing important has changed directly in Congress from Tuesday to Wednesday. But the indirect implications of these elections could be considerable, and very interesting for us Congress-watchers.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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