More Thoughts on Off-Year Elections

A few further thoughts re: my Campaign Desk post on how the media strains for meaning in off-year elections:

First, the fact that a local outcome doesn’t hold great significance for divining the national mood doesn’t mean it’s not important—or even that it’s not important nationally. A Detroit Free Press article about that Michigan state Senate race notes that the outcome there could affect the state’s next round of redistricting, which could in turn affect the partisan breakdown of Congress. There’s an interesting story in there about how real consequences arise from low-turnout, low-profile elections, thanks in part to the way our political institutions are structured. But that story doesn’t have anything to do with this race being a bellwether for the national mood.

Second, anytime one angle is overplayed, another angle is underplayed. In this case, one of the underplayed angles is candidate quality. If Jon Corzine does pull out a win in New Jersey, it will probably be less because of public support for Barack Obama, who stumped for Corzine over the weekend, than because Corzine’s opponent, Chris Christie, has been terribly disappointing. In Virginia, Creigh Deeds, on his way to a loss against Bob McDonnell, seems to have been similarly lackluster. In NY-23, meanwhile, the role played by outside conservative activists in weakening a moderate Republican nominee really is an interesting story. But whatever Dede Scozzafava’s ideological heresies may have been, it’s unlikely she would have dropped out were she not the sort of candidate who calls the police on unfriendly members of the press.

Third (and not specific to off-year elections), there’s a real danger in drawing meaning from events that are essentially contingent, and because there’s an element of contingency to elections, any meaning that does exist can likely be found before Election Day. In a close race like the New Jersey gubernatorial campaign, the outcome will depend on things like turnout strategies and enthusiasm gaps but also, in part, on random variation. If an analysis of what an election says about the mood of the electorate would be totally reversed had the vote totals moved by a point, there’s probably not much to it.

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