Our ability to discern trends in off-year elections is always limited by the influence of local factors -- especially when strong personalities are involved. But there are four lessons that emerged from yesterday's results that are extremely important for Democrats as we prepare for next year's midterms.
1). First and foremost, the results show that it is critical that the Democratic message be framed in populist terms.
Not surprisingly voters are unhappy. Ten percent unemployment, rising health care bills and shrinking incomes will do that. All of these problems resulted from the Republican policies of the previous eight years and the conservative values frame of the last thirty years. They have been caused by the concentration of power in Wall Street, the big health insurance companies and the dominant role of corporate special interests in Washington.
But if Democrats do not clearly frame the debate in those terms, it is easy for voters to vote against whoever is in power at the moment -- which now happen to be Democrats.
The most distinctive trend in last night's results was that in all of the nationally significant races, the incumbent -- or incumbent party -- lost (or in the case of New York City, did much more poorly than expected).
Corzine had trailed Christie by 10 percent through much of the summer. Massive TV spending, appearances by the president and last minute get-out-the-vote efforts helped close the gap. But that wasn't enough to re-elect the former Chairman of Goldman Sachs in a state with little patience like New Jersey.
In Virginia, the lackluster campaign of Creigh Deeds never had a chance and found it singularly difficult to inspire voters.
New York's 23rd District had not elected a Democrat since the Civil War, but Democrat Bill Owens made history by winning the seat against a divided Republican field.
In New York City, Michael Bloomberg was supposed to cruise to re-election. He outspent his Democratic opponent by millions and still just squeaked out a win.
It was a bad day to be an incumbent -- or incumbent party.
To avoid the same fate next fall, Democrats need to frame the national debate in distinctly populist terms. We need to continually name the forces and institutions that have caused such economic pain, and present ourselves as the agents of change who will return economic power to average Americans. If we do not, we will be blamed.
Political messages loaded with references to our "experience" in Government or that attempt to sound "middle of the road" when it comes to Wall Street or insurance companies will be heard by the voters as apologies for a status quo that they don't like and want to change.
John Corzine is a very progressive guy. But his ties to Wall Street were far from a plus in yesterday's balloting.
2). Independent voters will demand that Democrats deliver on our promise of change. Yesterday many of the independent voters that supported Obama in Virginia and New Jersey last year voted Republican. This trend may be slightly overstated since many Republican leaning voters who used to self-identify as Republican in exit polls are now self-identifying as Independents. But there is little question that independent voters are very impatient. In 2008 Barack Obama sold them on change and hope. To continue to invest their hope with Democrats, swing voters are going to have to see evidence that change is happening.
It won't work to make excuses -- even if some of them are legitimate. The truth is that the same economic forces that caused our problems are doing everything they can to prevent change. By next fall we don't have to win everything. We don't need to bring unemployment to 2% or have completely wrestled the health insurance companies to the mat. But independent voters are going to have to see some evidence that we have begun to make serious change.
That means we're going to have to win the battles for health care reform, change the financial regulatory system, begin creating clean energy jobs and pass immigration reform. Most importantly, it means that Democrats have to demonstrate that they are creating jobs. To accomplish that task, a great deal more economic stimulus is a must.
3). Democrats must inspire the base. In Virginia and New Jersey, the Republicans turned out more strongly than expected and many, many Obama Democrats stayed home. There were some good Democratic and base mobilization get-out-the-vote programs in both states. Mechanics weren't the main problem. The problem was inspiration.
Inspiration was Barack Obama's not-so-secret weapon in 2008. Inspiration helped him persuade independent voters who wanted change, and mobilize base voters who wanted hope. Without an inspired base, Democrats cannot hold our own in 2010 -- it's that simple.
Success at making change will help renew the faith of Independents and also help energize the base. But to be inspired, the base of the Democratic Party must be convinced that the president and his party are the champions of core progressive principles as well. A hopeful populist frame is critical to motivate mobilizable voters.
Key symbols will be very important. That's why it is so important for 2010, not only that a health insurance reform bill passes, but that it includes a public option. That's why it is so important -- to mobilize Latino voters -- that Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform.
4). Our not-so-secret weapon in 2010 is the Republican circular firing squad. Thank God for Sarah Palin -- and the entire "purge the party of all but true believers" crowd. The story of New York 23 read like a fable. The Club for Growth, Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and their whole gang turn on the not-conservative-enough Republican nominee -- driving her to endorse the Democrat -- and lost control of a seat Democrats have not won in a hundred and fifty nine years.
I would say that Democrats should nurture and encourage this self-destructive right wing tendency, but they seem to do a fine job all by themselves. Luckily, the commercial interests of Limbaugh, Beck et al. are entirely congruent with the ambitions of fringe candidates like Sarah Palin and the right winger who lost in New York 23, Doug Hoffman.
Notwithstanding Republican victories in the New Jersey and Virginia governor's races, let's not forget that a lower percentage of Americans now self-identify as Republicans than at any other time in a quarter-century. The right wingers in the Republican Party are mainly talking to each other -- not to the country.
But as last night's returns demonstrated, that even with that enormous handicap, Republicans can still win elections if we allow the legitimate anger and impatience of the voters to focus on "incumbents" instead of the economic actors that have created such a deep well of desire for real change in America.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.