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The Election Wasn’t About Obama

rach-headshot-kimberlyThe smartest thing I read last night on Twitter was by Dan Kennedy. He wrote this:

Does anyone really believe the nonsense that any election is a referendum on Obama? Here’s the referendum on Obama: 11/6/2012.

It’s an easy headline, I know, and so tempting on this, the one-year anniversary of Obama’s history-making hope-bringing win in the 2008 presidential election. He stood there in Grant Park before thousands of screaming fans and the nation, and promised to bring CHANGE, and he didn’t. Booooo on Obama, clearly the REPUBLICANS are the answer!

Sorry guys, it’s just not that simple. Or glib. Elections are also about people — the people running and the people voting. Occasionally, they are about the people who come to a state to stump for a highly unpopular billionaire who made all his money on Wall Street and doesn’t wear seatbelts. But there’s more to it than that.

Take New Jersey, since we’re already there. Wow, Republicans haven’t won a statewide election there since 1997. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a whopping 700,000. Last year, Obama won New Jersey by 16 points. What a stunning rejection! Well, not so fast. Corzine was there too — and his approval rating was under 40%. Actually, it’s been down there pretty comfortably for a while — as in, since mid-2008. Can’t really blame that on Obama; he didn’t even have the nomination ’til June.

Doesn’t matter — Newt Gingrich will — and he’s not gonna let a little thing like facts get in his way:

According to Mike Allen of The Politico, network exit polls showed that 85 percent of Virginia voters and 90 percent of New Jersey voters were worried about the economy. Governor Haley Barbour put it best: “It’s not about the President personally…the President’s policies are unpopular.”

Zing! Except for the actual results from New Jersey exit polls asking if they approved or disapproved of how Obama was doing his job. Results: 57% approved, 42% disapproved. Also: When asked if Obama was a factor in their vote, 55% of voters in Virginia said no. 60% said no in New Jersey. (Mike Allen had those numbers, too.)

This does not mean there wasn’t concern about the economy — there was, and how (Newt got that right: 85/90% worth in VA and NJ). But hmm, who do people like to blame when things go south? The people under whose watch it went there — aka “incumbents” or “the people for whom yesterday was not a good day.”

Meanwhile, can we just look at Virginia for a moment? Be honest: Is Creigh Deeds your ideal candidate? Bleh, not exactly Mr. Charisma, is he? But aside from that, Newsweek‘s Gaggle has a smart and well-reasoned argument for why a statewide election might have been, you know, particular to that state. And those candidates. Yes, it’s easier (and better ratings!) to blame Obama, but at some point it has to make, you know, sense.

Oh and by the way, Bloomberg? An incumbent expected to sail through to the finish, cutting it close enough to freak out an entire nation of watchers. Was that a referendum on Obama? (Yes! He’s almost a democrat!) Actually, no. Phil Bump lays out the voting blocks and patterns behind the Bloomberg almost-loss (when you’re this close in your third term, you can’t call that a win).

And let’s not even go to NY 23. But I think it’s safe to say that if there was a referendum there, it wasn’t about Obama.

Here’s what else was not about Obama: turnout. Even as David Plouffe is selling the Obama magic on his book tour, it was decidedly absent in this election. Where was the ground game? The will.i.am videos? The Great Schleps? The last election was about a great wave of change, and this election is part of its execution. It’s just different. So were voting patterns — a lot of people who came out last time didn’t this time. Howard Fineman on MSNBC called it “a revolution in reverse…it was as much about people who didn’t turn out in Virginia and maybe as much about people who don’t turn out in New Jersey. The Obama supporters didn’t show up in anywhere near the numbers they did.” I’m not sure you can blame that on Obama, exactly — it is pretty hard to get quite that excited about Corzine.

So! Does this mean the White House is safe and sound? Er, no. They’ve got lots to be worried about, starting with that suddenly-unreliable base and going on from there. As much as this election day was not — WAS NOT WAS NOT WAS NOT — about Obama, going forward, they will be. The clear issue on everybody’s mind is the economy, and how the hell we’re all going to move forward. Obama can go on and on about how he’s cleaning up somebody else’s mess, but there’s an expiration date on that line. He is the President, after all. And if people ask themselves, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” and don’t like the answer, well then, he’s got a problem.

But that will be then, and this is now. Last night there was not one election but a whole bunch of them, in different places involving different people with different issues and different intertwined histories. The people who voted cast their vote for or against these different candidates, in the hope that their immediate lives and communities would be made better. They may not like Obama, and they may like his policies, and their patience may be wearing slowly thin. But, last night, it wasn’t about him. 2012 is still years away — plenty of time to blame President Obama, and actually be right.

Related:
Why Creigh Deeds Lost Virginia [Newsweek]
Corzine’s Fall Has Been Festering for a While [CBS News]
What Happened To Bloomberg [Mediaite]
How last night’s election results were bad for Obama [Slate]
Super Tuesday provides ‘unmistakable rebuke of Democrats’ – possible ‘severe near-term consequences’ for Obama agenda – independents flee Dems [Mike Allen’s Playbook]
Profile of New Jersey Voters [NYT]
Profile of New York City Voters [NYT]
A Bad Day for the Obama White House A Good Day for the American People [Human Events]

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