03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Blame Election

I haven't yet had a chance to digest all the numbers from yesterday's election, but what is coming through loud and clear from all the analysis I have seen is that the biggest difference by far between the 2008 election results and the 2009 results is simply that the two electorates were radically different.

For as long as I have been in politics (my 30-year anniversary as a full time politico is coming up next year, and I started knocking on doors 10 years before that), I have been hearing some Democratic politicians and operatives dismiss concerns of progressives by saying "Well, what are they going to do, vote for the Republican?" Well, comparing the differences in the electorates in 2008 and 2009 (not unlike the difference between 1992 and 1994 by the way) should destroy that myth completely. In both 2008 and 1992, Democrats won in large part because unusually high numbers of young people, people of color, and unmarried/working class women came out to vote and voted strongly in their favor. In 2009 and 1994, those sectors of the electorate still voted Democratic when they came to the polls, but strikingly high numbers of all those demographic groups just simply failed to vote.

Now it is also true that independent voters turned away from Democratic candidates in NJ and VA, but there is some overlap here. Remember that many registered independents lean heavily toward one party or another. Young, non-white, lower income and female registered independents tend to lean much more heavily toward the Democratic party than older, higher income, white, and male independents. If the kinds of independents showing up to vote are more heavily weighted to the latter categories, as they were yesterday, Republicans will gain from that.

Having said all that, I think we need to be careful about over-simplifying or over-hyping our analysis here. It's important not to read too much into yesterday's very small sample of elections, especially given the mixed results, and it's important for progressive strategists to understand that the problems Democrats face are about swing voters as well as base voters. I think what is clear is that, as I wrote yesterday, both kinds of voters are in an irritable mood, and that will only get worse over the course of the next year. Absent a stunningly strong economic recovery with millions more new jobs than anyone thinks likely, 2010 is shaping up as a classic kind of blame election. Next year, swing voters will likely be walking into the polling place really angry, looking to cast blame and send a big message. The biggest surprise yesterday wasn't in the gubernatorial or congressional races, it was Michael Bloomberg's remarkably close re-election margin -- the voters are irritable and wanted to send the heavily favored incumbent a message.

So how is it that the party in power survives a blame election? Part of the answer, as I wrote yesterday, is to actually deliver the goods -- get real things done that average folks notice in their every day lives. A very wise person once said to me that if an incumbent has to explain what they have done for the voter, they probably have already lost. I remember with painful clarity the increasing desperation in 1994 as Bill Clinton in speech after speech tried to tell people all the great things he had accomplished for them, but voters hadn't felt it yet in their lives and they tuned him out. So our health care had better deliver real benefits to people right away, and we need to be creating jobs ASAP. I can't think of a worse political strategy than telling people things would have been so much worse if it wasn't for us, and don't worry about a lack of jobs because they are a lagging indicator, they'll get here someday.

In a down economy, though, we will only be able to deliver so much that is tangible. We need to keep focused on doing it, but it's not going to be enough. The other thing we have to do is get voters anger focused on something other than Democrats as the party in power. However, blaming the Republicans is just not going to sell. They aren't in charge, and voters don't want to hear it. Blaming the first George Bush didn't work for Clinton in 1994, and blaming Jimmy Carter didn't work for Reagan in the 1982 recession. If you are in charge, voters will hold you responsible- period, end of story.

There is a believable villain to blame, because voters do consider them very responsible for so many of our problems, and that is the wealthy, powerful special interests- first and foremost the big banks. Very big majorities of voters believe that the big special interests have too much power in DC, and that their power is a huge part of our country's problems. They know, in their heads and in their guts, that our economic problems stem first and foremost from the power of the big banks. But right now, they don't perceive either party as being willing to take the big boys on and fight them. Democrats supporting the bailouts unfortunately reinforced this perception.

Nothing would be healthier for the Democratic Party than if the President went populist and came after the bankers hard. But absent that, my advice to all the Democrats running for office in 2010 is to become fighters against Wall Street, to take them on in every way you can. I would call for breaking up the too big to fail banks, I would call for investigating and prosecuting some of these high rolling traders for fraud, I would call hearing after hearing where they are subpoenaed for everything under the sun. And whatever financial regulatory legislation you are supporting better not be seen as having been weakened to meet the backers demands.

Both base and swing voters are in a bad mood. With the base, it means they won't come out to vote. With the swing, it means they are more likely to swing against the party in power. But if Democrats look they are starting to deliver on their promise for change, and look like they are actually fighting the powers that be, both swing and base voters will come rallying to your side.