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Obama Doesn't Own Change

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We re-learned something important last Tuesday: President Obama doesn't have proprietary rights to "change." Change is a non-partisan electoral phenomenon, and last week the forces of change bit the Democratic hand that fed them in 2008. Change didn't end when Obama was elected, and this anti-Washington, pro-reform sentiment will likely shape the political environment for the next several months.

To some extent, of course, results in VA and NJ were about key segments of the electorate (such as suburban voters and white women) returning to their ideological comfort zones, but the results there were more about a general dissatisfaction with the direction of the country; that was the key driver in the defeats of two Democratic governors.

While passing some type of health care reform will almost certainly provide a boost to Democrats, we believe that the prolonged focus on health care reform--by Congress and the media--is frustrating voters who continue to be more concerned about the economy. This is why we saw the President announce a "Jobs Summit" this morning. Where has the White House political team been since January? Under a rock?

A lot can--and will--happen in the next 12 months that will impact the 2010 midterms. The generic congressional ballot, however, is one of the better predictors of future election outcomes and the trend is undeniably positive for Republicans. Below is a regression trend going back a little over one year. Just for fun, if we project this out to Election Day 2010 we're looking at a GOP landslide. That, of course, is unlikely, but it does show that Democrats should be concerned with the overall trend.

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Some additional notes on the current environment, informed by last week's exit polls:

1. The GOP swept VA and won the Governor's race in NJ by flipping the Obama coalition on its head. Yes, turnout was lower (normal for off-year elections and unsurprising considering turnout for the 2008 Presidential election) but independents, suburban voters and even young voters (in VA) went for the Republicans. Obama won VA by 7 points and NJ by 20! These two maps really tell the story (click for the larger originals):

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2. The economy was a key driver of anti-incumbency sentiment last week and this will continue unless perceptions of economic performance improve. While the Dow is soaring again, unemployment has hit 10.2%. Despite the growing talk about a recovery, it has yet to hit Main Street. A recent Ipsos/McClatchy poll shows that only seven percent of Americans believe that the U.S. economy has "turned the corner." From most voter perspectives, the economy is still a mess and they are unsatisfied with the Democrats' response. This is confirmed by the exit polls:

• 89% of NJ voters were worried about the economy and Christie won 51% of the vote among them (Corzine 43%, Daggett 5%).
• 85% of VA voters were worried about economy and McDonnell won 63% - 36% among that group.

In short, voter attitudes regarding the direction of the country are really hurting the President and Democrats right now.

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3. All politics is local, but the perception is that local economic woes are due to national, systemic problems. The storyline is that the recession was the result of insufficient regulation and excessive speculation on Wall Street, and it's clear that voters now believe that these type of things fall under the purview of the federal government. This skepticism toward the federal government's ability to deal with these problems was further reinforced by reactions to the stimulus.

4. The exit polls confirm that we're still in a "change" mindset. Republicans also won handily among independents (66-33% in Virginia and 60% - 30% - 9% in New Jeresey).

• Thirty-nine percent of NJ voters said "change" was the most important quality, not "honesty," "experience," or "values," and "change" voters broke 67% - 26% - 7% for Christie.
• McDonnell also won the youth vote 54% - 44%. While this group represented just 10% of the turnout, it is a surprising result for a socially conservative Republican.

5. The stage may be set for another wave election. Suburban voters and white women favored both Christie and McDonnell after breaking for Obama in 2008. These groups were key to both Clinton's victory in 1992 and the subsequent swing back to the GOP in the 1994 midterms. While the economy was not front-and-center at that time, the failure of a transformative liberal agenda to properly address issues sounds familiar. Again, we must stress that we are a long way away from Election Day 2010 and this is just one scenario--if an increasingly plausible one.