Once upon a time in American politics there were no such things as “public opinion polls.” Back in the heyday of Jacksonian Democracy politicos had to rely on off-term elections to give an indication of national and statewide political trends. If you were a Whig editor in New York drumming up support for Henry Clay in the coming 1844 election, you would look to August elections in Pennsylvania, September elections in Indiana and North Carolina, and early October elections in Massachusetts and Tennessee to give some indication of who will win in November. Newspapers of the time – nearly all of them aggressively partisan – ran detailed tables showing the fortunes of Whigs and Democrats in obscure parts of the country. These election results not only served the talismanic effect of determining the ultimate November victor. They gave strategic direction to campaigns across the country. And they provided bragging – or excuse-making – rights from local partisans.
And why not? Without polling, how else could politicians know which memes to push, scandals to highlight, policies to deride, theatrics to exploit, etc?
Yesterday’s vote was so 19th century in that way. We had contested Senatorial primary elections on both sides in the land of Henry Clay (Kentucky), a Democratic primary (and a nearly competitive GOP one) in Arkansas, and two high-profile races in the Keystone State. The PA primary pitted a political turncoat against base-driven progressive ex-Navy admiral.
And then there was PA-12, nestled in the hills of Central Appalachia where the great industrial revolution found its second wave in the late 19th century; where Central Europeans once flocked to mining towns and steel cities; and where the great coal and steel barons of Pittsburgh flexed their muscles in the hinterlands. What began in the hills of southwest Pennsylvania in the 1880s – particularly coal and timber extraction – merely continued into West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Many of those same timber and mining interests leaped like a quantum bit of anti-matter across the Mississippi River to Arkansas, developing the mineral resources there too. Yes, the three states holding elections yesterday share a sort of economic and political history too.
The PA-12 race is most fascinating because of its anomalies, including:
1) A historic Democratic registration advantage that translate very little to national voting habits (much like Appalachian West Virginia, Kentucky, western North Carolina, southwest Virginia and Middle Tennessee).
2) A rapid shift toward the GOP in recent elections, such that PA-12 became the only district in America to vote for John Kerry and John McCain.
3) A persistent conservative Democratic identity at the LOCAL level – which Hillary Clinton tapped into in her primary (as in WV, KY, TN and AR) – and which still leads to massive Democratic advantages in state legislatures and county commissions.
4) The ghost of Jack Murtha – a man who once embodied the Blue Dog Democrats but who came to be one of Nancy Pelosi’s most reliable allies
5) The Tea Party, which supported Tim Burns and found its greatest strength not in the Rust Belt heartland of PA-12 but in the white collar exurbs of Pittsburgh.
6) The issues: Health care (older voters in PA-12 hate ACA), cap-and-trade (this is coal country), war (and Deer Hunter country), debt (does it matter here?), pork (PA-12 is Porkopolis) – most of which place PA-12 to the right of Obama.
7) Obama’s CONTINUED unpopularity in PA-12. He simply never caught on in a region that defined the “bitter voters clinging to guns and religion” stereotype.
8) A simultaneous Democratic primary, which undoubtedly boosted Democratic votes, though with heavy cross-over in PA-12 did not automatically portend good results for Mark Critz
9) National money and attention from the DCCC and RCCC, including the Dems’ great turn-out operation
10) Local issues – Despite all the talk of national issues the most salient ones for PA-12 voters were probably local.
All of these factors played into the PA-12 election. Some of these are, frankly, not replicable. There aren’t that many districts left like PA-12.
But the election did provide a sort of testing ground for both Democratic and Republican strategy, and it provided a few important lessons. These are:
1) Making the election about Pelosi and Obama – even where they are deeply despised – is not an automatic winner for the Republicans.
2) Trying to out Blue Dog Democrats as closet liberals is much harder than it seems – especially when the local Blue Dog has a record and reputation for conservatism locally and voters know the candidate personally.
3) Tea Party sentiment is restricted to certain subsets of the electorate and will play less of a role in general elections than the media coverage would suggest.
4) The 2006-08 strategy of picking Democratic candidates to match the district continues to bear fruit. As Matt Yglesias points out, you ” can’t count on those guys’ votes on all the key issues, but each of them is with you sometimes. Add up a shifting coalition of such members to the big block of solid House liberals, and Nancy Pelosi can put an effective governing agenda together.”
5) Good candidates matter. What if Martha Coakley were not a tone deaf fool? Would we even be talking about massive GOP gains? Political skills matter greatly. Mark Critz has them. My guess is most other Democrats running in tough districts do as well.
6) Candidates can pick and choose the issue matrix they wish. In PA-12 some of the Obama agenda is deeply unpopular. But some of it is popular.
Believe it or not, Critz came out STRONG for Social Security, which resonated with the elderly population of the district.
7) You have to be FOR something. Tim Burns told us what he hated. But what would he do differently?
8) The passion still exists on the Democratic side. Despite all the talk of the GOP’s advantage here, the Democrats managed to double up the GOP vote in Kentucky – roughly corresponding to the state’s registration numbers. One would have thought many conservative KY Democrats would have stayed home instead of voting in a primary between two candidates to the left of Mark Critz.
And most importantly:
5) A November GOP landslide is far from inevitable. The Republicans will almost certainly pick up seats. But the talk of a House takeover must be put on hold for now. An effective Democratic campaign, coupled with improvements in the economy and in Obama’s approval numbers, may mean that the “wave” might look more like a minor bump. This is no reason for Democrats to get complacent, obviously. But it does mean the doom-and-gloom miasma of the past several months might be more media chatter than political reality.