The mainstream media have labeled last night’s election results a reflection of "anti-incumbent sentiment." But I think Andrew Romano of Newsweek is right on in his label – last night’s election results were the equivalent of a Rorschach test. Put the ink blots in front of partisans, and they will see what they want to see. Put the ink blots in front of the media, and they will attempt to craft an overarching narrative that explains all of these races with one handy label.
It’s important to remember that these are primary results (except PA-12.) They reflect the sentiment of partisans in low turnout elections. These elections are more about the activist base of each party, and are of limited utility in predicting general election results. Not only that, but generalizing beyond the particular race is risky, since political campaigns are between real candidates in a specific location, not a national referendum on the political parties. Nonetheless, the results have to be somewhat encouraging to Democrats who fear a landslide midterm wipeout.
These are Primaries, So What Kind of Candidates are Partisans Picking?
There are many recent examples of “ideologically pure” candidates outperforming more “moderate” candidates in partisan contests. Lee and Bridgewater over Bennett in Utah, Charlie Crist’s choice to run as an independent rather than lose the GOP primary to Marco Rubio in Florida, Sestak over Specter in Pennsylvania, Paul over Grayson in Kentucky, and Blanche Lincoln being forced into a runoff after a narrow plurality win over Bill Halter all fit that description.
One could also argue these results fit the “anti-incumbent” label as well, but that’s more tenuous. After all, Paul won a primary for Jim Bunning’s open Senate seat, incumbent Rep. Sestak beat incumbent Sen. Specter, Sen. Lincoln won the first round (albeit narrowly) against Lt. Gov. Halter, and Bob Bennett may have simply overstayed his welcome in Utah. And in all of these cases, the results aren’t bad for Democrats. The Utah seat is a Republican lock, Rand Paul has only a narrow lead in polls against Jack Conway, and Joe Sestak has a better chance of beating Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania than Arlen Specter did. Ironically, if Lincoln survives the primary challenge, she will be well positioned to cast herself as a moderate Democrat in a state that likes to elect moderate Democrats. And Charlie Crist’s defection gives Democrat Kendrick Meeks a better chance than he had before.
In the special election to replace late Rep. Murtha in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, Democrat Mark Critz rather easily defeated Tim Burns. PA-12 is a swing district that had a very longstanding incumbent, and GOP pundits salivated at the prospects of demonstrating that a tidal wave was coming in November by picking up this seat. Now Eric Cantor has some ‘splaining to do. Cantor’s response to the PA-12 loss was “we [the GOP] cannot get ahead of ourselves." Maybe someone should have told John Boehner that before he declared that the GOP could pick up 100 House seats.
A Tea Party or a Bubble Tea Party?
My philosophy is that when someone makes a pronouncement that “the rules of the game have changed,” it signals that a bubble is about to burst. In economics, we saw this in action in 1999 right before the collapse of the Internet bubble (“P/E ratios are for suckers! The rules have changed!) and in 2006 right before the collapse of the housing bubble (“Better buy now! Prices will go up forever!) Even though it was unimaginable in November 2008, the seemingly successful revival of the GOP is already suffering from the kind of overconfidence that precedes the bursting of a bubble. (People are angry! They want to slash government! The Tea Party represents a fundamental shift in politics!)
The choice to go long on very right wing candidates (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, or the local example of Tom Emmer) favored by the Tea Party crowd is a big risk. Betting on the angry and disaffected to show up, deal with party processes, and continue involvement after disappointments is a high leverage play. Pollster Charlie Cook said on ABC News this evening that voters are voting for "whoever represents anger." Even if it pays off this cycle, I feel sorry for any candidate who wins by appealing to the angry electorate. They may be your friend now, but they’ll turn on you in a second. Well, that might not worry you so much if you carry a shotgun all the time.
If anyone tells you that this election represents the end of the moderate voter, it’s time to sell. We still haven’t heard from moderates yet. And if the economy starts to turn around by September, 2010 may end up as more of a whimper than a bang for the GOP.