Political Hay

Political Phalanxes

A report from the political battlefield, as currently construed.

By 11.17.09

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It was just a skirmish, two reconnaissance parties meeting in advance of the main forces. Still, the outcome was so different from their last encounter, that both sides are now reassessing the prospects of the next engagement.

We are not talking about war, but the recent elections and their national ramifications next year.

Inarguably, conservatives exceeded expectations. In fact, conservatives did so even when Republicans did not. A case in point was the special election in NY-23. Here the Republicans lost the congressional seat for the first time since the mid-19th century and their formal candidate finished a distant third in the race.

However, the Conservative finished with 45.2% of the vote, losing by just 4.1 percentage points to the Democratic winner. The Conservative Party candidate polled less than 2 percentage points lower than McCain had done in last year's presidential election. In contrast, the Democratic winner polled 3 percentage points behind Obama's 2008 total.

In the two gubernatorial elections, the swing was even wider. In New Jersey, the Republican Christie took 48.8% of the vote to Democrat Corzine's 44.6%. Obama took New Jersey 57%-42% in 2008. That translates into a 6.8 percentage point Republican gain and a 12 percentage point Democratic drop-off from 2008 to 2009.

In Virginia, the Republican McDonnell took 58.7% of the vote to Democrat Deeds' 41.3%. In 2008, Obama won the state 53%-47%. The 2008-2009 swing is an 11.7 percentage point Republican gain and a Democratic drop of 12 percentage points.

Even in the little-noted CA-10 special election, the same volatile swing was evident. In 2008, Obama had won the district with 64.7% of the vote versus McCain's 33.2%. In the 2009 special election, the Democrat won with 53% to the Republican's 43%. Even with a double-digit margin, the Democrat vote percentage dropped 11.7 percentage points and the Republican's gained 10 percentage points.

Moral victories are not necessarily political victories. For that reason, Republicans walked away with only two wins in these four races. Yet for those who are more focused on next year's races than this year's outcomes, the larger story of volatility is clear.

The following table gives a range of American politics. Most elections take place in Tier One. In definitive outcomes, they move into Tier Two. In rare instances, they extend into Tier Three.

AMERICAN POLITICAL RANGE
Tier One: Both parties motivated
Tier Two: One party only motivated
Tier Three: One party motivated and expanded
Tier Four: Alternating party motivation and expansion

What made 2008 so unusual was the fact that Obama not only motivated the Democratic voting base, he expanded it. At the same time, the Republican base shrank. These two divergent movements created the appearance of a landslide. In terms of the preceding table, it was a rare Tier Three elections.

The recent 2009 results raise the possibility that the 2010 outcome may be equally volatile… in the opposite direction. If such were to be the case, the result might not simply be another Tier Three outcome -- noteworthy enough in itself. It could presage a new cycle, a Tier Four period, whereby the electorate swings widely back and forth.

What is the rationale for such a possibility? For one thing, Obama again will not be on the ballot in 2010 -- helping re-create the 2009 dynamic. He presumably will be in 2012 (potentially re-creating the 2008 surge) and then will not be in 2014 and 2016. If his presence and absence causes the electorate swings seen in 2008 and 2009, these next four elections could be extraordinarily volatile.

The palpable anti-incumbency and dissatisfaction in the electorate only adds fuel to this fire. A recent 10/27 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (conducted 10/22-25 with1,009 adults with a margin of error of +/- 3.1%) showed only 41% of respondents said their representative deserved re-election, while 49% said it was time to give a new person a chance. Seventy-six percent said that "only some of the time" or "never" did they trust "the government in DC to do what is right." Eighty percent said they were "somewhat dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with "the state of the US economy today" and 55% thought the economy would "get worse" or "stay same" over the next 12 months. Sixty-three percent expected unemployment to increase.

The recent rise in the national unemployment rate to 10.2% underscores the economy's continuing negative impact on the electorate. The fact that many estimators don't see the rate falling much below 10% through next year is another warning sign for politicians. At the same time, controversial issues in Washington are likely to extend into next year -- health care and climate legislation both have the potential to exercise the electorate rather than calm them.

Ancient Greece's citizens fought each other in phalanxes; modern America's do so in political parties. Yet, the outcomes are not dissimilar. Tightly packed and well-organized, phalanxes were comprised of heavily armed soldiers that fought in close formations with spears pointing outward. Moving in unison, they collided amidst great din and exertion but inflicted and suffered relatively few casualties in most battles…as long as the phalanxes held. Only when the ranks weakened and then disintegrated did carnage ensue.

Each party's ranks have alternated between strengthening and weakening in the last two elections. If this continues, the political battlefield is likely to be bloody indeed.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.