Tomorrow's Elections: An Obama Referendum?

While spinmeisters from both sides will do their best after tomorrow’s results are in, it's a dicey business to draw broad conclusions from state and local off-year elections. The turnout's different and the issues and candidates are idiosyncratic, meaning conclusions need to be hedged. Nonetheless there are themes worth watching – economic discontent chief among them, given its customarily awesome political power.

But first things first: Is tomorrow's voting a referendum on Barack Obama?

Pre-election data suggest that notion's a tough sell. Consider for example a Washington Post poll last week, in which likely voters in the Virginia governor’s race divided essentially evenly on whether they were voting in part to express support for Obama (14 percent) or opposition to him (15 percent); the rest – and most by far, 70 percent – said he wasn’t a factor in their vote one way or the other. In another, similar measure, 16 percent said it's better to have a governor from the same party as the president; 13 percent, from a different party – and 71 percent said this, too, made no difference.

Further, Obama held a 95 percent approval rating among Virginia likely voters who reported having voted for him a year ago. Fourteen percent of those '08 Obama voters told the Post they favored the Republican, Bob McDonnell, in this race – suggesting more a failure on the part of the Democratic nominee, Creigh Deeds, to win those voters, than a judgment on Obama in their preferences.

Among all likely voters in Virginia, 54 percent approved of the way Obama's handling his job overall; Deeds' 44 percent support further suggests that his challenges are more of his own making. Similarly, in the New Jersey governor's race, a Quinnipiac University poll found 55 percent approval for Obama among likely voters, again well over Democrat Jon Corzine’s own support. Among '08 Obama voters, 89 percent said they approve of his performance today; 7 percent disapproved.

I'm not seeing these kinds of data from the NY23 congressional race, in which the Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava has stepped aside and endorsed her Democratic opponent in the face of a strong challenge by Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman. The upstate district, formerly represented by Republican John McHugh, appointed by Obama as secretary of the Army, is an interesting one. On one hand Obama won it by 52-47 percent over John McCain a year ago. On the other, McHugh won it by a resounding 65-35 percent at the same time, and it's a district where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by a substantial margin, 12 percentage points.

In a district where median household income is $8,000 below the national figure, note the populist, throw-the-bums out content of Hoffman's statement after Scozzafava bailed yesterday: “It's time for us to send a message to Washington – we’re sick and tired of big-spending, high-taxing, career politicians and by voting for me on Tuesday you will send that message loud and clear.”

That cuts to what's likely the most important factor to watch in tomorrow’s races and beyond. With the possible exception of an unpopular war, there is no more consistently powerful force in election politics than economic discontent. It breeds broader disaffection that can be harnessed to the out party's (or even a third party's) advantage. It can damage incumbents more generally. And for 2010, it's what to watch.

We've seen the harm economic discontent can do to incumbent presidents and parties. It cost the first President Bush re-election in 1992, pushed his son to record-high disapproval a year ago and helped Obama to his election as president. We've also seen what it can do in off years; most pertinent is 1994, when, though the economy was slowly mending from the 1990-91 recession, 59 percent of voters in our exit poll said it still was in bad shape – and 62 percent of them voted for Republican candidates for Congress, lifting the GOP to a 52-seat gain and control for the first time in 42 years.

Soothsayers might note than in 1993, a year before that historic election, Republicans won in New Jersey – where Christine Whitman unseated incumbent Gov. Jim Florio – and in Virginia, where George Allen won an open but previously Democratic seat. That is what it is; for '10 tea leaves I'd look most closely at economic discontent, and the corrosive effect it can have on incumbents in general, and especially on the party in power.

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