Election Day 2009: The Dems Pre-Spin


Today, there are three elections being watched by the politerati: governor’s contests in New Jersey and Virginia and a special election to fill an upstate New York congressional seat that was vacated by a Republican. It looks as if the Republicans—who have widely been regarded as hapless in recent months—are poised to win two, if not three, of these races. (New Jersey is the Democrats’ best bet, with incumbent governor Jon Corzine holding a narrow lead over his GOP challenger in the latest polls.) So be prepared for plenty of cable chatter tonight and tomorrow about a Republican resurgence, whether justified or not.

Anticipating this possible onslaught of punditry, the Democratic Party this morning emailed reporters an analysis from MSNBC’s political unit that essentially issues a pre-postmortem whoa:

*** A Referendum On Obama? Deep down, a political reporter’s first instinct is to nationalize off-year and special elections. Why? It’s the best way to try to make sense — at least initially — of a handful of races across the country. It’s also the best way to sell a local race’s importance to editors and producers. We all do it. So it shouldn’t be surprising that almost everyone is nationalizing today’s gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia, and even the NY-23 special congressional election. And the chief question they’re asking is: Are they referendums on President Obama’s first year in office? Yesterday, the New York Times wrote that the New Jersey race was “one of several [contests] likely to be viewed as a barometer of the president’s popularity.” And here was the AP: “A Corzine loss would be seen as a political embarrassment for the White House.”

*** Remember That Candidates Matter: If Democrats lose in New Jersey and Virginia, that certainly would be a shot in the arm for a Republican Party that hasn’t fared well in the in the past two election cycles (losing control of Congress and the White House). That outcome also could give Democrats pause that the voter coalition that propelled Obama to victory last year (liberals, young voters, minorities, independents) appears dormant or is no longer intact. But is that a referendum on Obama? Not so much. For starters, how much does Creigh Deeds losing in Virginia say about Obama, when the president’s approval rating in the state is at 57% among registered voters and 54% among likely voters, according to the most recent Washington Post poll? And if Jon Corzine’s favorable rating in the Quinnipiac poll was at 38% back in March (near the height of Obama’s honeymoon), and it’s at 39% now, how does that say much about Obama and his popularity/presidency? Likewise, if Democrats are able to split the races by winning in New Jersey or even pull off the upset in Virginia, does that mean Obama’s presidency is on easy street? Absolutely not. In short, these races say much more about Deeds/McConnell or Corzine/Christie than they do about Obama.

You can see why the Democrats fancy this view; they obviously are fretting that losses in these elections will reflect poorly on Obama, who campaigned for the Democrats in Viginia and New Jersey. But for the D’s, the MSNBC take does have the added benefit of probably being accurate. Sure, the GOP will have bragging rights if its candidates win in these three races. But such triumphs won’t necessarily mark a significant trend—other than within the insta-analysis that emerges from the commentariat.

You can follow David Corn’s postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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