Mistakes, distortions and outright lies appeared so frequently in media coverage of the elections of 2009 that they made accurate analysis all but impossible.
The most serious of these errors built upon gross misrepresentations of the presidential election of 2008 falsehoods repeated endlessly and shamelessly enough to become enshrined in the conventional wisdom. Before this years whoppers achieve similar acceptance, its worth re-examining some of the most familiar confusions regarding the last two election cycles.
LIE NUMBER ONE: By winning New York’s 23rd Congressional District, Democrats captured a seat Republicans had held without interruption since the 1850s. Nancy Pelosi herself recycled this misunderstanding in her anomalous claim of victory on the morning after the election. When the Speaker spoke, she declared: We had one race that we were engaged in, it was in northern New York, it was a race where a Republican has held the seat since the Civil War. Reporters on every network, and in every major newspaper, thoughtlessly repeated this formulation, but an astute caller to my radio show had the audacity to question it. He declared that he had researched the district and found scant evidence to support the claim of an unprecedented, ground-breaking, shocking Democratic breakthrough.
In fact, the caller was correct. First of all, the 23rd District as currently constituted is a relatively recent creation, with no consistent history going back to the Civil War. As recently as 1950, New York State sent 45 members to the House of Representatives in Washington, compared to the 29 elected today; the state has obviously lost considerable ground to faster-growing regions of the country in the West and South. Today’s 23rd District therefore contains large pieces of three former Congressional districts and comprises 11 upstate counties; while the size of the New York delegation has shrunk, the geographic spread of each Congressional district has greatly increased. Six of the eleven counties now in the 23rd district have indeed been represented by Democrats in the years since World War II; two of them (Madison and Essex Counties) helped elect Democrats as recently as 1976. Even by the fast-and-loose mathematical formulations that characterize Speaker Pelosi, there’s a notable difference between since the Civil War and since 1976.
Moreover, the district has been trending Democratic long before this years bitter split between the liberal Republican Congressional candidate Dede Scozzafava and the Conservative Party’s Doug Hoffman. In contrast to its description as a previously unassailable bastion of stalwart Republicanism, the district (with its current boundaries) carried comfortably for Barack Obama over John McCain a year ago: 52% to 47%. George Bush barely carried the district (51% to 47%) in the strong Republican year of 2004. Even if Hoffman hadn’t split Republicans with his Conservative Party challenge, its entirely possible (even probable) that a controversial candidate like Scozzafava would have lost the district anyway to the formidable Democratic nominee, Bill Owens.
LIE NUMBER TWO: Democrats lost in 2009 because of low turnouts with African-Americans and young people in particular failing to get out and vote the way they did for Barack Obama. Actually, the turnouts on November 3 were respectable particularly in New Jersey. In the Garden State 2,355,000 voters went to the polls a strong increase of 182,000 over the last gubernatorial election in 2005. Contrary to all press reports of a listless black turnout, African-American voters came out in formidable numbers, comprising a bigger proportion of the electorate (16%, according to exit polls) in support of Democrat Jon Corzine in 2009 than in support of Barack Obama in 2008 (only 14% of all New Jersey voters). The reason Corzine lost by 4.5% (compared to Obama’s resounding victory of 15.5%) had nothing to do with decreased black support, and everything to do with Republican Chris Christies success in recapturing suburban white voters.
The 2009 Republican landslide in Virginia also reflected changed minds, far more than depressed turnout. Obama beat McCain in the state by a margin of 233,000 votes but the newly elected Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, swamped his Democratic opponent Creigh Deeds by more than 345,000 votes (and 17.4 percentage points). While the turnout last week was down somewhat from the previous gubernatorial election in 2005, even if Creigh Deeds had won every single vote cast for the victorious Democrat (Tim Kaine) four years ago, he still would have lost substantially (by 133,000 votes) to the popular Bob McDonnell. The GOP swept Virginia because their candidate swayed voters who previously supported Democrats (like Kaine and Obama) not because the Democrats simply stayed home.
LIE NUMBER THREE: Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign energized millions upon millions of new voters, who turned out for him in unprecedented numbers and drove voter participation to all-time highs. This constantly repeated (and utterly false) observation continues to warp out thinking about politics, leading to dumb mistakes like the widespread suggestion that 2009 represented a sad decline from the glorious turnouts of 2008. Actually, this years election was more-or-less typical for off-years contest, and last years much ballyhooed race in no sense represented a high water mark in voter turnout or involvement.
In fact, the final, official numbers in 2008 show that turnout didn’t increase at all but actually went down slightly from the Bush-Kerry race in 2004. In 2004, 63.8% of eligible citizens cast ballots for president; four years later, despite all the press hysteria surrounding Barack Obama, that number declined to 63.6%. Its true that 5 million more Americans voted in 2008 than in 2004, but the citizenship rolls went up by more than 9 million, explaining the small decrease in the rate of participation. Exit polls also conclusively demonstrated the lack of substance behind the awe-struck rhapsodies concerning hordes of idealistic new voters inspired by the glorious contagion of Obamamania: in 2008, 11% of those who cast ballots qualified as first time voters; four years earlier, for the less than inspiring Bush-Kerry battle, an identical 11% of those who came to the polls did so for the first time. Among the youthful 18-24 age group, supposedly the heart-and-soul of the Obama revolution, 44% cast ballots in 2008, compared to 42% four years earlier; hardly a remarkable upsurge. Meanwhile, the participation for every other age group went down in the four years between 04 and 08, accounting for the overall decline.
In other words, Obama’s campaign largely failed in its efforts to expand the electorate. He won the presidency not because he drew new voters to the polls, but because he persuaded previously Republican voters particularly among Latino, Asian and suburban communities to switch their support (at least temporarily) to the Democratic side.
LIE NUMBER FOUR: McCain lost in 2008 because dispiried conservatives stayed home and denied him their support. Leading conservatives, particularly in talk radio, love to recycle this idiotic misinterpretation despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. While its certainly true that many loyal Republicans on the right side of the spectrum never warmed to John McCain, they most certainly rallied behind Sarah Palin. In fact, the McCain-Palin ticket nearly matched the Bush-Cheney ticket of 04 in drawing strong conservative support. In both 2004 and 2008, identical percentages of voters (34%) told exit polls that they saw themselves as conservatives. In both elections, only miniscule percentages of these voters went to minor party candidates: in 2004, the two leading right wing parties (the Libertarians and the Constitution Party) drew a combined percentage of 0.44%, four years later, Libertarians and “Constitution” People together polled an equally meaningless 0.55%.
Its true that McCain drew exactly 2,105,796 fewer votes than the victorious Bush four years before, but he also won a whopping 9,478,812 more votes than Bush got in beating Al Gore in 2000. The brain dead comments about three million missing conservatives causing McCain’s loss ignore the numbers. The exit polls show that conservatives amounted to the same percentage (34%) of a slightly larger electorate in 2008, so its not true that right-wingers stayed home, while the virtually identical figures for fringe candidates shows no mass desertion from McCain to the sorry likes of Bob Barr and Chuck Baldwin. While Obama did win more self-described conservatives than John Kerry (20% as opposed to 15%) , this amounts to a shift of only 1.7% of the total electorate. Even without these additional conservative backers (many of them, no doubt, black and Latino) Senator Obama would have still drawn 51.22% of the vote more than Bush’s winning percentage in 2004, or Al Gores popular vote victory in 2000. The shift of a small percentage of conservative voters from the Republican candidate to the Democratic candidate didn’t seal McCain’s defeat or Obama’s victory.
Why, then, did McCain win more than 2 million fewer votes than Bush?
The answer is that he lost self-described moderate voters overwhelmingly and with their desertion lost the election. Moderates constituted 44% of the electorate by far the largest group in both 2004 and 2008. Bush split their votes with Kerry, 45-54%, but McCain lost in a landslide, 39-60%. The Arizona Senators reputation as a maverick couldn’t make up for what many Americans in the mushy middle perceived as the harsh, angry tone of his campaign. He may have taken moderate stands on some issues, but McCain (and his charismatic running mate) lost this crucial voting bloc (where Bush and particularly Reagan always did well) by their perceived immoderate style. In an underdog campaign that tried consistently to catch up with the front-running Obama, the Republicans in 2008 tried to go on the attack, including last minute jabs involving Bill Ayres and charges of socialism. Pollsters reported that Obama’s vacuous talk of hope-and-change struck the public as positive, while overwhelming majorities saw McCain and Palin as running a more negative campaign.
Ironically, McCain’s own reputation as a moderate may have undermined his ability reach out to moderates in his 2008 presidential bid. Since many conservatives viewed him with suspicion, McCain had to devote much of his time to solidifying and reassuring his conservative base. In both primary season and the early stages of the general election campaign he had to concentrate on committed conservatives (who are far more numerous within the Republican Party) rather than those uncertain, persuadable middle-of-the-roaders (who are far more numerous in the electorate at large and who, like it or not, decide every general election contest.)
McCain’s image as an unreliable partisan (despite a lifetime American Conservative Union voting record of 83%) made it impossible for him to use the strategy that worked so brilliantly for the newly-elected Governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell. As a life-long religious conservative with a strong, consistent record on social issues, McDonnell could ignore those issues in the final months of his campaign and appeal to centrists as a pragmatic, non-ideological problem solver.
Ronald Reagan employed the same approach when he ran for president in 1980, knowing that he could count on widespread conservative support and so reaching toward the center for moderate and independent votes. He even made a nod to moderates by selecting George H.W. Bush as his running mate (after former President Gerald Ford, another GOP centrist, declined the possibility). If McCain and Palin had scored as well among those who called themselves moderates as the Reagan-Bush ticket of 1980 (when they won 49%), let alone as well the Reagan ticket fared in their even more successful campaign of 1984 (with 53% moderate support), the Republicans in 2008 would have won the election with a clear majority.
Like all other successful Republican candidates, Reagan understood that it is impossible to win by appealing solely to those who consider themselves conservative. When he defeated Jimmy Carter, only 28% of voters (according to exit polls) said they were conservative; the highest conservative percentage in any election came in 2004 and 2008, with 34% of the electorate. The notion that any contender for the presidency could succeed by rallying conservatives alone is a reassuring fantasy with no basis in logic, evidence, or history.
There are many other false conclusions and misleading arguments concerning the elections of 2009 and 2008, but clearing away these most obvious and obnoxious hoaxes about NY 23s purely-Republican past, the suppressed turnout in New Jersey and Virginia, Obama’s avalanche of inspired new voters, and McCain-Palin’s doom through conservative defections can represent an important first step to an honest understanding of a volatile, conflicted and increasingly disenchanted electorate. All politicians who hope to win power in the current agitated climate need to reject the mythic elements of conventional wisdom and embrace the truth, no matter how challenging or uncomfortable.