Assessing the National Mood: A Special Election in Florida and its Implications

Believe it or not, last Tuesday was election night. Several million Americans voted (or more accurately, did not vote) in mostly local races.

These results provide a helpful snapshot of the national mood. Polls may be inaccurate, or – more commonly – different pollsters may have different pictures of the public mood. Unlike polls, elections have that useful tendency of never being wrong.

Special elections for congressional districts are especially convenient, because there is already a wealth of accumulated data about them. Moreover, because name recognition of both candidates is generally very low, they come as close as one can get to “generic Democrat versus generic Republican.”

Quite happily, a special election occurred on Tuesday in one such congressional district. Specifically, voters in Florida’s 19th congressional district went about replacing retired House Representative Robert Wexler. Here are the results:

Of course Democrats do not and have – almost – never have enjoyed a majority anything close to that pictured here. These results must be placed in the context of the congressional district’s political lean. If, for instance, FL-19 constituted a Democratic stronghold, this result would be fairly unremarkable. It might even be quite worrisome for Democrats, depending on the district’s Democratic lean (there are some very, very, very Democratic congressional districts out there). On the other hand, if FL-19 usually voted Republican, Democrats would have some reason to celebrate a victory of this magnitude.

As it turns out, FL-19 constitutes a reliable Democratic stronghold. Located in the Miami metropolis, elderly and Jewish voters compose much of the district’s population. The latter accounts for Democratic strength, making Florida’s 19th 15% more Democratic than the nation as a whole.

With this in mind, last night’s election results do not look so impressive for Democrats. In fact, it appears that the party underperformed relative to the district’s lean.

But this is not news at all – in recent months the public mood has shifted quite strongly against the Democratic Party. Almost the entire Beltway agrees that Democrats will lose seats in November’s midterm elections; the only question is the degree of their loss. Republicans are hoping for a repeat 1994-type landslide; Democrats would be happy to retain control of the House.

Due to the unfavorable public mood, Democrats have had a terrible batting average in the most recent special elections; they most famously lost the state of Massachusetts to an unknown Republican State Senator:

In this context, Florida’s result looks positively respectable. The Democratic Party can take heart in the relatively small drop-off since 2008 – especially compared to their previous performances. Given that President Barack Obama won the election by more than 4.65%, it even suggests that Democrats hold a slight lead on the national level.

Indeed, in recent weeks Democratic fortunes have been on the rise. The passage of health care, alongside a slowly but surely improving economy, has led to an ever-so-slight uptick in their polling. Florida’s result substantiates these polls.

Finally, the very nature of FL-19 can lead Democrats to be optimistic. Mr. Obama’s strongest supporters, young and minority voters, are not present in large numbers in FL-19. Instead, this district – whiter and much more elderly than the nation at large – is composed of the very groups which have been moving away from the Democratic Party. Although it still votes strongly Democratic, Fl-19 is not as blue as it once was:

That Democrats performed as well as they did in a district such as this provides further reason for Democratic optimism. Elderly and white voters have not all abandoned the party; it still can do well with constituencies outside the Obama coalition.

The national mood is still fairly unfavorable towards the Democratic Party; certainly the public is more antagonistic than it was when electing Mr. Obama. If an election were held today, there is a good chance Republicans would end up controlling at least one chamber of Congress. But perhaps, if these results are to be believed, the Democrats are climbing out of the hole the recession has dug for them.


The Second Election Night Trend

By: Inoljt,

For Democrats, the election's most worrying result was not in Virginia, New Jersey, or Maine. It was the special election in CA-10.

At first glance, this might seem a bit puzzling. Democrats won that election, after all - and they won it by a comfortable 10% margin.

Yet, when compared to previous elections, this result is quite an underperformance. Barack Obama, for instance, won this congressional district by three times that margin. Since 2002, moreover, former Democratic congressman Ellen Tauscher had never polled below 65% of the vote.

Moreover, the election revealed more about the national mood than, say, Virginia or New Jersey. Those races were heavily dependent on local factors (e.g. the quality of the Deeds campaign, the unpopularity of Governor Jon Corzine). In CA-10, you had two low-recognition candidates and little publicity; it was closer to a generic ballot poll.

If  CA-10 could be characterized as a generic ballot poll, then Democrats should be extremely worried. In 2009, CA-10 went from a 30% Democratic victory to a 10% one: a 10-point shift to the right. Similar shifts were seen in New Jersey and Virginia; the electorate as a whole moved substantially to the right. The Democrats were very fortunate that Tuesday did not constitute a full-blown congressional election; they would have been crushed.

There is good news, however. Democratic weakness two days ago resulted more from an energized Republican base than a fundamental shift in the national mood. Republicans, motivated and unhappy, turned out; President Barack Obama's coalition did not. The president still attains approval ratings in the low 50s - hardly the sign of an unpopular incumbent.

The bad news is that I am not sure if Mr. Obama's coalition will turn out for the 2010 congressional elections. His voters have been curiously lethargic ever since his election; their low turn-out was how Senator Saxy Chambliss in Georgia went from a 3% general victory to a 14% run-off victory. Republicans, then, may do well next year.

In fact, I am not even sure Mr. Obama's coalition will re-emerge in 2012, when he goes up for re-election. The president, after all, ran on a campaign of hope, change, and idealism. The difficult compromises forced by governing have tainted this brand, and it will inevitably continue to be diluted over the next three years. Obama's 2008 coalition may go down as unique in American history, much like former President Jimmy Carter's coalition.

I hope it will not. There is that word again.

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