Respinning Virginia: Forget The Obama Surge Voters

Heaven help me, but I'm going to take issue with a political satirist. And not just any political satirist, mind you, but Jon Stewart himself. On his Monday show, Stewart lampooned the tendency of journo-punditocrats to opine that the interpretation of the election matters as much as the election itself. The humor was based on the premise that both sides will have their spin, pundits will dutifully select whatever spin fits the moment, and then, even though they know they're not telling the truth, will focus the collective mind in such a way as to perpetuate a distorted meaning of the election.

Hey -- a stopped clock is always right at least twice a day. To read election results is to interpret them. Interpretation is an active and iterative process. And the results of one set of elections -- after being interpreted -- often influences how the next set of elections are run.

But it's important for analysts to get it right. It's important for good analysts to recognize, as many don't seem to want to do, that it's in the parochial interests of moderate Hill Democrats to interpret Virginia and New Jersey as a plea for Washington to step on the brakes or clear the slate or whatever temporal slowdown metaphor they want to use. It's in the parochial interest of Republicans to interpret New Jersey and Virginia as a harbinger for the Democratic agenda in 2010 and 2012.  And it's in the self-interest (and self-identity) of Virginia and New Jersey voters to assert that their election had nothing to do whatsoever with sending a message to politicians who weren't a ballot but were, instead, about local issues.

The case of the Obama Surge Voter illustrates this fiction. There are some Virginia Democrats who are criticizing the Creigh Deeds campaign for failing to devise a strategy to turn out Obama Surge Voters -- younger, non-white, first-timers. There are Republicans who are gloating that the failure to turn out such voters is proof that the 2008 election was a one-off.

Neither interpretation comports with the way the races were actually run, the way the state political cultures work, nor with history. The idea that anyone would be able to turn out young voters and black voters like Barack Obama did is absurd. It is logically implausible that because this cohort of voters were motivated by the interaction of the candidate and his message in one year, they would automatically be receptive to an entirely different candidate and entirely different message another year simply because that candidate shared an initial.

Check out how odd-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey were won in years past. Independents in the odd-year elections tend to motivated by consistent, methodological, pragmatic leaders -- precisely the candidates that Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie were. They tend to be unusually responsive to economic conditions. In Virginia, strategists from both gubernatorial campaigns believe -- and have evidence to show -- that the bulk of the off-year undecideds made up their minds in the summer, when Virginia faced a budget crisis, and when the talk in the DC suburbs was of bailouts, trillion-dollar health care bills (note: THESE voters have health insurance), and double-digit unemployment.