The political coalition that powered Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008 splintered apart in Tuesday’s off-year elections. If his political team can’t figure out how to pull it back together, 2010 could be a big year for the GOP.
Independent voters – key supporters for Obama last year – broke for the Republican candidate in both the New Jersey and Virginian gubernatorial elections. Meanwhile, many committed Democrats just stayed home, particularly in Virginia.
Voters on Tuesday appeared to be worried about the state of the economy and the implications of the skyrocketing federal deficit. Overall, the results should be a wake-up call for the White House, according to Allan Lichtman, professor of political science at American University.
President Obama should go off to Camp David for a few days, without advisers, and think through how he wants to respond to this setback, said Lichtman.
“Obama needs to take charge of the national debate, on healthcare and other big issues,” he said.
It’s easy to overinterpret the results of a handful of key races in an odd-numbered election year, of course. Local issues were a major factor in both of Tuesday’s big races.
Incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine had become deeply unpopular in New Jersey as his state suffered in the economic downturn. Democratic candidate state Sen. Creigh Deeds in Virginia was a less-polished speaker than his GOP opponent, Bob McDonnell.
Plus, one year can be a lifetime in politics. Was it only last November that Obama rolled to his convincing victory? By next November, the US electorate could be in a completely different mood.
But right now that electorate is exhibiting some dangerous tendencies, as far as Democrats are concerned. For one, independents have moved en masse to the Republican tent.
In New Jersey, Republican candidate Chris Christie won 58 percent of self-declared independents, according to exit polls. In Virginia, Bob McDonnell won 63 percent of independents.
Boosted by independents, McDonnell won Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties in northern Virginia. All are suburbs or exurbs of Washington, D.C., that went for Obama in 2008 – seen then as evidence that the Old Dominion was drifting leftward.
The defection of independents was “the big news in the numbers” from Tuesday’s vote, according to former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer.
Democrats have assumed that independents will back them in supporting larger government programs and more government spending, said Mr. Bauer. “But they are wrong,” said Bauer in a statement on the election’s outcome.
In general, the electorates in both New Jersey and Virginia were disproportionately Republican on Tuesday, says Mr. Sabato at the University of Virginia. GOP voters were energized and eager to vote. Democrats were not.
For instance, young voters, a core Democratic constituency, last year made up 20 percent of the electorate in Virginia. This year, they were only 10 percent of voters.
The same dynamic occurred with African-Americans, another largely Democratic segment of voters. Last year African-Americans were 20 percent of Virginia voters. This year, they constituted 16 percent.
A majority of voters in Tuesday’s elections named the economy as their No. 1 concern. The problem for Democrats is that they have now controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress long enough that voters may be starting to hold them responsible for the nation’s economic state.
A recent Gallup tracking poll found only 11 percent of Americans rating the economy as either excellent or good. Only 26 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the way things are going in the country.
“Unless the economy turns around dramatically over the next year, the Democrats [in 2010 midterms] are likely to face an electorate that is very unhappy with the course of the nation and the state of the economy,” according to a Gallup analysis of its polling data.
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