A History of the Endless Referenda on Obama

Every few weeks Barack Obama's name seems to be on a ballot somewhere

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Who says we elect a president every four years? Every few weeks Barack Obama's name seems to be on a ballot somewhere. Not literally, of course. All politics may be local, but local politics are boring! (At least to the people who get paid to write and talk about politics.) So whenever there's a special election, it must mean something. Something more than the sum total of the political dynamics of a particular jurisdiction. And habitually, that something is how President Obama's political fortunes are faring. Nevermind that the answer is usually the same thing if you were talking about national polls (with lingering 9 percent unemployment, you may have noticed that Obama's not very popular right now), hours of cable TV and miles of blog posts will not fill themselves! Thus: the endless Obama referenda.

Coverage of these special elections tend to follow a pattern: weeks of warnings, then a flurry of analysis as the vote draws close and voters actually make up their minds, followed by a single day of "what it all means" for the president. Today's takes place in West Virginia where Democratic acting governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, is backed by unions, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Rifle Association, and may not win re-election. Tomblin has never run for statewide election (as president of the state senate, he was named acting governor after then-Gov. Joe Manchin was elected to Robert Byrd's old Senate seat). As you will see, the critical issue involved, in the minds' of those covering the election, is what does this mean for Barack Obama? But first, let's review the surprisingly extensive history of special elections that were referenda on the President:
January 19, 2010: Massachusetts Special Election to Fill Ted Kennedy's Senate Seat
  • Facts on the ground: Ted Kennedy had occupied his Senate seat for 47 years before dying of brain cancer in 2009. Democrat Martha Coakley, the state's attorney general, ran against Scott Brown, a former model and little-known state representative. It should have been an easy win for Coakley, since Massachusetts' congressional delegation that that point had zero Republicans. But the race suddenly tightened at the end of 2009 despite Obama campaigning for Coakley, and Brown won with 52 percent of the vote.
  • Republican spin: Massachusetts voters were repudiating Obamacare. "The Healthcare Bill Is Dead," the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes declared. Free Republic posters said John F. Kennedy had been a proto-Tea Partier. Mike Huckabee said it was "a second Boston Tea Party as tons of Democrat hubris, elitism and paternalism were dumped into Boston Harbor."
  • Democratic spin: Coakley was the worst candidate of all time. She wouldn't campaign, she didn't poll in early January, she said stupid things. "Not since Grady Little gave away the American League pennant to the Yankees in 2003 has New England witnessed this level of ineptitude. Actually, that Red Sox reference would probably sail right over Coakley's head, when you consider that just the other day she told a gobsmacked radio host that Curt Schilling -- who's endorsed her GOP opponent, Scott Brown -- was a 'Yankee fan.' It was just the latest in a series of blunders that have helped Coakley blow a 30-point lead over Brown," Jason Zengerle wrote for New YorkNewsweek's Jonathan Alter said, "Coakley is like the Waterworld of American politics, an indelible symbol of failure and, yes, arrogance and stupidity." Besides, Massachusetts never elects women statewide.
  • Conventional wisdom: This was a race that would change everything in politics. Democrats would have to remake the health care bill, for one. And as CNBC's Jim Cramer put it, "I think investors who are nervous about the dictatorship of the Pelosi proletariat will feel at ease, and we could have a gigantic rally off a Coakley loss and a Brown win. It will be a signal that a more pro-business, less pro-labor government could be in front of us."
  • What actually happened: The Dow on January 19, 2010: 10,725. The Dow on January 20, 2010: 10,603. And the Affordable Healthcare Act was passed by Congress nine weeks later. 
May 18, 2010: Pennsylvania 12th Congressional District
  • Facts on the ground: Longtime Rep. Jack Murtha died in Feburary 2010, and Democrat Mark Critz ran against Republican Tim Burns to fill his seat. Republicans thought they could pick up the seat, which was closely split in 2008. Critz won with almost 53 percent of the vote.
  • Democratic spin: Voters had rejected Republicans; their momentum was a mirage.  “For all of their bluster about building a national wave this year, including RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s guarantee of victory for Tim Burns, Republican policies were once again rejected when it came time to face the voters," Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen said.
  • Republican spin: Democrats only won by running away from the president. “They will steer clear of publicly campaigning with President [Barack] Obama and Speaker Pelosi, distance themselves from the Democratic agenda, and attempt to co-opt Republican positions on the issues," National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said.
  • Conventional wisdom: Democrats are on the move! "The Critz win marked the sixth straight victory for House Democrats in contested special elections -- a streak that dates back to 2008," the Washignton Post's Chris Cillizza wrote. "While Republicans can rightly note that the Democratic registration advantage in the seat made for tough sledding from the get-go, there's no getting around the fact that the 12th district is just the sort of culturally conservative territory Republicans have to win if they want to make good on their promises of taking back the House this fall. (Always worth remembering: This is THE ONLY House district in the country that went for Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and then for Sen. John McCain in 2008). Does Critz's win mean that Democrats won't lose seats this fall? Absolutely not. But, it once again proves that candidates and campaign strategy matter and puts the burden of proof squarely on Republicans moving forward when it comes to making a case for the majority."
  • What actually happened: Republicans claimed a majority in the House of Representatives by picking up 63 seats in midterm elections, the biggest gain since 1948.
April 5, 2011: Wisconsin State Supreme Court Special Election 
  • Facts on the ground: Liberal JoAnne Kloppenberg challenged conservative David Prosser for his seat on the state supreme court. The vote was predicted to be a referendum on the state's union law, even though the judges had nothing to do with it. At first, Kloppenburg had a tiny lead. But then a ton of Republican votes were found, and Prosser won.
  • Democratic spin (when they were winning): "[V]oters were rejecting Walker's policies," said Mike Tate, chair of the state Democratic party. 
  • Republican spin (when they were losing): Only those union lovers in liberal Madison voted against Prosser. "Right now, government employees in Madison run Wisconsin. It's up to Scott Walker and legislative Republicans to wrest control back,"  Christian Schneider wrote at the National Review.
  • Democratic spin (after they lost): "This is a very significant victory, regardless of the outcome," a hedging Wisconsin state Sen. Mark Miller told Slate's Dave Weigel.
  • Republican spin (after they won): "Union Heads Explode," Gateway Pundit's Jim Hoft headlined his post on the new tally.
  • Conventional wisdom: Despite it being the most closely watched state judicial race, well, ever, no one ever won this war of spin. So let's look at Real Clear Politics' Sean Trende who didn't argue that the election meant anything for Obama or unions. Instead, he looked at the upcoming state senate recall elections. Trende wrote April 19, "The basic playing field suggests that Democrats should be able to advance the ball a seat or two, but will likely come up short in their bid to seize control of the chamber, at least this year via a recall strategy." Ding ding ding! We have a winner: that actually happened, see below.
May 24, 2011: New York's 26th Congressional District 
  • Facts on the ground: Democrat Kathy Hochul ran against Republican Jane Corwin in a special election to replace Chris Lee, who quit Congress after Gawker revealed he had emailed shirtless images of himself to women who weren't his wife. Hochul said Corwin would support a Republican plan to overhaul Medicare, and won 47 percent to 43 percent, with self-funded Tea Party candidate Jack Davis getting 9 percent.
  • Republican spin: Davis's candidacy stole votes from Corwin. Plus, as former Indiana Rep. Chris Chocola wrote, Corwin was a bad candidate. Chocola said the election wasn't about Medicare, but "a candidate’s ability to defend freedom. ... Corwin did a terrible job articulating the free-market message, and Davis consistently demagogued the important issue of trade."
  • Democratic spin: Voters hate it when Republicans try to mess with entitlements. "Kathy Hochul's victory ... sends a clear message that will echo nationwide: Republicans will be held accountable for their vote to end Medicare," Nancy Pelosi said.
  • Conventional wisdom: Democrats, welcome to your 2012 victory strategy. The Hill's Bob Cusack said "Democrats will be talking about Medicare for the next year and a half." He added, "Obama’s political comeback continues after the trouncing he suffered last November. Hochul’s victory gives the president leverage in the debt-ceiling discussions."
  • What actually happened: None of that. The debt ceiling negotiations didn't go well for Obama -- he didn't get his grand bargain, and voters don't see him as the grownup trying to deal with bratty Republicans. And his approval ratings are very low -- more than half of Americans expect him to lose in 2012.
August 9 & 16, 2011: Wisconsin State Senate Recall Elections
  • Facts on the ground: After a law to curb public sector unions' power was passed by Republican state lawmakers after weeks of controvsery and protests that drew hundreds of thousands. Democrats launched a recall efforts against eight Republican state senators. Republicans countered with their own recall efforts against eight Democrats. Six Republicans and three Democrats faced recall elections; only two incumbents, both Republicans, were defeated, meaning the GOP kept control of the Senate.
  • Republican spin: In the war of ideas, unions lost, the Washington Examiner's David Freddoso wrote.
  • Democratic spin: "We went on their turf and we won on Republican turf," the Wisconsin Democratic Party chair told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Conventional wisdom: The total defeat for liberalism, progressivism, unionism, etc. "If these results stand, its an undeniable defeat for labor and for progressive activists," The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote.
  • What actually happened: And like so many special elections, this one was about local issues. That is most clear in the case of Randy Hooper, a Republican whose chances of holding onto his seat began to look grim when recall activists showed up on his door to demand he sign their petition. They were met instead by his wife, who said she'd support his recall because he'd moved in with his mistress. It was later revealed the mistress got a sweet state job despite not formally applying for it. Hooper lost, and progressives seem to be as disarryed and ineffective as they were before the Wisconsin electoral wars.
September 13, 2011: New York's Ninth Congressional District
  • Facts on the ground: Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat, resigned for using Twitter to send pictures of his penis to women who weren't his wife. Democratic State Assemblyman David Weprin ran against former Jerry Springer producer Bob Turner, a Republican. Turner won by 8 points.
  • Republican spin: Despite Democrats' 37-point advantage in voter registration, the district's large number of Jewish voters were mad about Obama's Israel policy.
  • Democratic spin: Obama only won the district by 11 points in 2008. And those Jewish voters were very conservative and angry about New York allowing gay marriage.
  • Conventional wisdom: Obama's base is crumbling because he has a problem with Jewish voters. "This is a preview of what President Obama might face in his re-election campaign with a demographic group that voted overwhelmingly for him in 2008. And it could affect the electoral map, given the battleground states -- such as Florida and Pennsylvania -- with significant Jewish populations," Dan Senor wrote for The Wall Street Journal.
  • What actually happened: Poll in Florida shows that by an overwhelming margin, Jewish voters think Obama's just fine. Also, conservatives who had previously obsessed with the demographics started noting that there are not very many Jewish voters nationally.
When analyzing what one election means for the grand sweep of history, it might help to look at the headlines following the 1938 congressional elections, in the middle of Franklin D. Roosevelt's third term. Democrats lost 81 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. "Mass Impatience With New Deal Policies and Low Prices Led to Republican Victories" one New York Times headline read, explaining, "Farmers of the agricultural West-especially the Middle West-may not want to go back to the old order of things. There is much to indicate they do not. But in last Tuesday's voting they voiced, in no uncertain terms, their dissatisfaction with the present order." Another Times article explained, "CAUSES OF THE SWING TO THE RIGHT ANALYZED; Trend Began Soon After the New Deal Victory of 1936 and by Election Had Become a Ground Swell" and added, "The trend of American political sentiment today is unmistakably toward the right." A third was headlined "REVOLT OF ELECTORATE ENDS ONE-PARTY RULE; Rise of Republican Vote, Rebuking the Post-1936 New Deal." Of course, two years later, Roosevelt was reelected in a landslide. And then Harry S. Truman won after that. The New Deal did not end.
So, to tonight's big West Virginia gubernatorial showdown. Given that in 2008 West Virginia was one of only five states that saw its Republican vote share go up from 2004 (it's at the eastern edge of the red spine on The New York Times's famous map) when McCain carried the state by 13 points, the state is not exactly Obama country. Just 28 percent of West Virginians approve of President Obama and Tomblin's said he might not vote for him in 2012. Obama hasn't campaigned for Tomblin. Indeed, Obama being anything but a major political liability would be a remarkable improvement of his political standing.
But if Tomblin loses -- and the polls don't look great -- expect people to say it's all Obama's fault. Tomblin has such a broad base of support (of people who do not like Obama) that NBC News' First Read writes, "There’s only ONE explanation for a loss. No one needs a win worse in West Virginia tonight than Team Obama." Reuters' Patricia Zengerle agrees: "A Republican victory in West Virginia, which has not had a Republican governor for 10 years, would be taken as a sign Obama is dragging down his party."
Because it's certain: no special election has mattered so much for Obama since the last special election. 
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.