Tea Leaves, Tarot Cards, and Ballots

One more round on divining what the off-year elections mean

The coalition of media outlets pushing back against over-interpretation of the national significance of off-year elections lost a key ally today. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal offered a worthwhile reality check on the hype surrounding the voting, but, via Brendan Nyhan, here is the lede of a front-page story in today’s WSJ:

A Republican sweep in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday shifted the political terrain against President Barack Obama only a year after his historic election.

That’s followed up by a series of quotes from various people (ordinary voter, Democratic pollster, White House press flack, conservative activist) interpreting the results through a national frame. Local issues—like, say, property taxes, which have preoccupied Jersey votes for decades—are barely mentioned until the end of the article.

In falling into this pattern, of course, the Journal has plenty of company. The New York Times has been writing from this perspective for weeks, and continues to do so today. And while there’s some interesting stuff in Dan Balz’s analysis piece in today’s The Washington Post, the opening encapsulates the “the-elections-are-freighted-with-broader-meaning-even-though-they-don’t-actually-predict-anything” theme:

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.

As is typically the case in these stories, the upshot of those “clear warnings” is vague or unpersuasive. Balz takes note of unease among independents about Obama’s agenda. But as he notes, polls have registered that unease for months. So in what sense do the outcomes of yesterday’s elections, in which countless other factors played a role, provide new information? And why should members of Congress, who will decide what parts of that agenda become law, assess the political calculus differently?

Fortunately, some voices continue to sound the appropriate note of caution. Here’s John Sides on yesterday’s gubernatorial elections (who provides some interesting links of his own):

…absent more evidence, we simply don’t know if they were referenda on Obama, on Corzine and Kaine, or on none of the above. Interpretations of elections depend on the reasons for voters’ choices. You can’t simply ask voters why they chose a candidate, or whether a particular factor mattered. People do not accurately report on their own mental processes.

Nate Silver, writing at CNN, notes how the “national significance” theme contradicts another longstanding (and generally well-advised) maxim:

“All politics is local.” That four-word statement, originally uttered by former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, is one of the favorite clichés of political pundits everywhere. But it’s seldom respected when it matters most.

…State-level politics, indeed, routinely differ from national ones. That’s why you have Democratic governors in red states such as Oklahoma and Wyoming, but Republican ones in blue states such as Vermont and Hawaii.

And to get even more mainstream, here is WaPo’s Ruth Marcus, making much the same point the WSJ made yesterday:

Well, you may wonder, what about the five most recent elections since 1989? After all, the states have changed and elections have become more nationalized. Fair enough — except that here the correlation is just as weak. Democrats took both governorships three times (1989, 2001, 2005). In two of the subsequent congressional elections (1990 and 2006), they gained seats. In one, 2002, they lost seats. And in the two cycles in which Republicans won both governorships (1993 and 1997), Democrats lost seats once (1994) and gained seats once (1998).

The mad search for meaning in yesterday’s polls is especially confusing because we can already reach some conclusions about both the “national mood” and likely future election outcomes, based on available data. As Matthew Yglesias notes, if you want to know what people think about the president and his agenda, you can ask them. (Yes, opinion polling has its limits, among them the fact that intensity is hard to measure. It’s still a better bet than trying to divine views on national politics from state races.)

As for 2010, Democrats will likely lose seats in Congress. But that’s because their coalition is out at its outer limits, the president’s party usually loses ground in the midterms, and the economy stinks. Until that time, Democrats in D.C. have an incentive to pass some version of health care reform (and an incrementally larger majority to work with), but the more conservative members of the caucus have an incentive not to be associated with the more liberal versions of that policy. We’ve known all those things for quite awhile now, and a different outcome yesterday wouldn’t have changed them a bit.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.