On Tuesday, November 3, as a resident of Arlington Virginia, I voted. As I did so, I recalled that Canadian friends had voted earlier in the week in Montreal for mayor and council members. On my ballot were candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and a variety of state and county officials, e.g., school board. For a variety of personal and institutional reasons, this was the first time I’d ever voted in Arlington, having participated by absentee ballot for 45 years in my home town, Scranton, Pennsylvania. But now I was exercising my franchise where I live; it was a privilege to do so freely and one about which I am not blasé.
As a result, I had the 21st century experience of voting booth “touch screens,“ which were sophisticated and effective. Politely, my screen reminded me that I had not voted for one position that had not registered my all-too-soft touch on the touch screen.
But I did more than vote. Indeed, I handed out campaign literature for the Republican Party to those approaching the voting site. Doing so was interesting in its own right, as northern Virginia generally and Arlington in particular are very strongly Democrat. For many years, campaigning as a Republican in Arlington was as feckless as campaigning as a Pequiste in Westmount. Reinforcing this reality was the 2008 presidential election during which Senator Obama carried Virginia for Democrats for the first time since Lyndon Johnson won in 1964.
But that was then and now is a year later. It was a perfect autumn day—sunny and crisp, but voters were far below 2008 peaks; Democrats were staying home, and if Democrats don’t vote in Northern Virginia, the party loses since “down state” is heavily Republican.
Moreover, there were those “straws in the wind” so beloved by observers to reinforce pollster predictions. Not only were there Republican campaign workers, but voters were taking sample ballots. In contrast, there were years, one Republican campaign worker recounted, that the only way you were able to tell for whom to vote was to get the Democrat sample ballot—and vote against their selections.
Moreover, few voters indicated any substantive anxiety. One suggested he was voting Republican, because “socialism” from the Democrats had forced such choice. But otherwise the most vocal concern was over the repeated/endless “robo calls” on telephones from both Republicans and Democrats. Serious issues such as funding to improve the public transportation net, privatizing state liquor stores, and state-level response to the Great Recession went unremarked.
In the end, Virginia “came home” to the Republicans. They beat the Democrats like a drum, sweeping every state-wide office by wide margins. The White House, sensing weeks ago that Virginia was a lost cause, had sawed its candidate off at the knees, huffily stating that he had not followed their campaign advice so that was why he was behind. Talk about a kiss off.
More important for President Obama was New Jersey—a traditional Democrat stronghold where no Republican had won statewide office in a decade—with an incumbent Democrat governor, a billionaire willing to spend any amount of money to hold his seat. Consequently, although Obama “did the necessary” to support the Democrat candidate in Virginia, he concentrated his efforts in New Jersey—where a year ago he had beaten Senator McCain by 16 percentage points. But New Jersey’s electorate, disgusted by corruption that had moved past the Soprano TV stage and irritated by the governor’s failures to fulfill promises, e.g., reduce taxes, ousted the incumbent.
On Wednesday morning, the spinmeisters were gyrating at top RPM. On the right, it was the end of the “age of Obama” while from the president’s flaks, it wasn’t even a light cold, let alone pneumonia. In reality, there are a few observations:
— off year elections are historically bad for the president’s party. They are dominated by local issues and “send a message” acolytes. These local circumstances often translate into embarrassing defeats for national leaders, particularly if they feel compelled to invest personally in a local campaign.
— incumbency is deadly for personalities and parties. In both Virginia and New Jersey, Democrats had held the governorship for eight years. To govern is to choose, and in bad times, the incumbents get the blame. Why re-elect someone who obviously doesn’t have the answers when there is an alternative that might have them?
— Obama’s personal popularity remains strong, but he isn’t strong enough to lift misguided wagons out of ditches. The “message” from November 3 is more for the ears of the federal congressional 2010 elections than for the presidential election in 2012.