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Mark Shields: Not All Politics Is Local

Even in off-year elections, Americans use their votes to express disappointment and their desire for change in Washington

Right there on the front page of the Oct. 23 Washington Post, “senior administration officials” attributed the predicted defeat on Election Day — then still a week and a half off — of Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds to his failure to seek and heed advice from the Obama White House.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

This can only be called a “pre-mortem,” obviously intended to counter any negative perception that President Barack Obama’s own popularity might be slipping in a state he carried just a year ago by pinning the blame for the defeat on the local guy.

But we already know, because Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told us that in 2009 Virginia and New Jersey “voters went to the polls to talk about and work through very local issues that didn’t involve the president.” Just as we learned from the campaign committee spokesman in 2001 — after the candidates of the then-president’s party lost gubernatorial races in those same two states — that “these (off-year) elections revolved around local issues and local candidates. There were no discernible national trends.”

All of these rationalizations and excuses are baloney, bunk and bushwa. Off-year elections do matter, especially psychologically. Victories help fundraising, help candidate recruitment and lift party morale. Defeat can leave in its wake anxiety, even panic in party ranks. As trusted Republican pollster Bill McInturff told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, “You cannot imagine the carnage of losing 54 House seats (the number Republicans lost between the 2006-08 elections).”

If it’s true that the three most important things about real estate are location, location, location, then the three most important things about Election Day are turnout, turnout, turnout. In the 2008 election — with much of the credit going to the Obama candidacy — a voter turnout increase of 5 million over 2004 included 2 million more black voters, 2 million more Hispanic voters and about 600,000 more Asian voters. The only age group that produced a statistically significant increase was young voters.

But when it came to voter turnout in 2009, Obama’s political coattails turned out to be a cutoff tank top. In 2008, Obama’s strongest age group in Virginia, young voters (ages 18 to 29), were 21 percent of the electorate, and his weakest age group, voters older than age 65, represented just 11 percent of the electorate. This year in Virginia, young voters shrunk to 10 percent of the total, while over-65 voters increased their share to 18 percent.

In fact, given the demographic makeup of the 2009 Virginia voters, even if Obama had run as strongly as he did in 2008 among Democrats, Republicans and independents when he won that state, instead of carrying Virginia by 7 percent as he did, he would have lost Virginia to Sen. John McCain by 4 percent.

But for the meaning of it all, nobody explains the political reality better than respected Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who finds the 2009 election returns quite similar to those of 2008: “Then as now the ‘ins’ lost and the ‘outs’ won, and the message remains the same: We want change, and we are unhappy with what’s going on.”

What do Americans feel toward Washington? In Hart’s candid judgment, “disappointment and disgust.” Instead of the new, fresh approach promised in 2008, voters still “see the same, old Washington” full of pettiness, partisanship and bile.

To compound the anger of citizens who, according to Hart, “are equally hostile to Wall Street,” the only groups they see being helped by the government’s economic policies — at the expense of people who have lost their jobs or average working families — are large banks and Wall Street investment companies. Those, sadly, are the final returns of 2009.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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