Republican Scott Brown's victory this past week in the Massachusetts Senate race has caused much jubilation in GOP quarters around the country. Yes, it's a defeat for the Democrats and a pickup for Republicans (at least temporarily), but before Republicans pre-order red, white and blue bunting and make advance hotel reservations for a 2013 Inaugural, they might sit quietly for a moment and ponder what all this means.
American voters in the last six or seven years have been sending wakeup alarms over and over again to Washington, DC, but both parties seem to just keep hitting the snooze button.
The volatility in the electorate is striking and palpable right now. President Bush and the Republicans won convincingly in 2002 and 2004, but within two years Democrats retook Congress and in 2008 expanded their margins, while the country elected an African-American first term Democratic Senator president with healthy vote margins.
Now within the last three months, Republicans have retaken the Governor's offices in New Jersey and Virginia, and have elected an unknown state senator in blue state Massachusetts to an office held for nearly a half a century by one Edward Kennedy.
The last time volatility was seen like this it involved Tiger Wood's Escalade having a nine-iron option added by his wife.
So what's going on? Both political parties should keep in mind a few key points involving the American political landscape and it might give some direction of where they should head:
1. President Obama was elected on a message of hope, changing the polarization in Washington, and bringing people together. As the president and his administration have strayed from that message and increased partisanship, his approval number as president has dropped nearly 20 points in just one year.
2. The only folks who voters dislike more in Congress than Democrats are Republicans. The latest CBS news poll shows Democrats in Congress with a 44 percent favorable rating, while Republicans have a 34 percent rating. Voters have no love for either side in Congress.
3. The fastest growing group of voters around the country is Independents. In looking at the registration numbers across the country, it is Independent affiliation that has risen not Republican as Democrats pursue an unpopular course in DC.
4. Younger voters are not solidly aligned with either party. After the 2008 election when President Obama overwhelmingly carried these voters by more than 30 points nationally, many Democrats proclaimed that younger voters were now solidly their constituency. In 2008, President Obama carried younger voters in Massachusetts by more than 50 points,. But in this week's U.S. Senate election, private polling shows that Republican Scott Brown split the younger vote! If either party doesn't connect with younger voters on their values and needs, these voters will alter their allegiance as fast as they Twitter, sign friends up on Facebook or change jobs that don't suit them.
5. Voters absolutely want health care reform, as we see in poll after poll, but they don't want the current version Democrats have put together. They want a consensus and bipartisan effort that lowers cost and expands access. Republicans risk voter displeasure if they just seek to block any and all reform, and Democrats are already suffering the wrath of voters as they push through a purely partisan bill.
6. Campaigns are not substantially decided by tactics and campaign operatives, but fundamentally are about values; specifically, by which candidate connects best on the values deemed most important in that election cycle. I am not referring to moral values, but broad values like honesty, compassion, caring, authenticity, strength, etc. Today, the dominant value desired is authenticity and a desire for consensus and community. It's why Democrats won in 2008, and it's why they are losing badly a year later, since bipartisanship was abandoned in a desire to "get things done" their way.
These are all key environmental factors both parties might want to keep in mind if they want to meet voters where they live and breathe. Otherwise, each party will continue to face the volatility of the electorate, and as soon as Republicans take office they will be shown the door just as quickly as Democrats are being shoved out.
I was struck in the past week by the disconnect between former Presidents Bush and Clinton teaming up together to help the people of Haiti and appearing on every major news platform, while simultaneously Democrats were discussing how they might jam through the health care bill over vehement Republican opposition. Maybe after Haiti has emerged from the awful crisis, President Bush and Clinton could team up and address the tragic partisan divide closer to home. Otherwise, politicians across the country should be prepared for more political earthquakes.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Washington Post.