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Learning the Right Lessons From Tuesday's Results

Learning the Right Lessons From Tuesday's Results

By Stuart Rothenberg - November 9, 2009

Everyone and his brother has opinions about what happened on Tuesday, but not all assessments are equally correct, just as not all of the descriptions of the contests, while they were in progress, were equally on the mark.

What were some of the mistakes and mischaracterizations during the campaigns and after the voting?

One of the worst, I thought, was the widespread characterization of Dede Scozzafava, the Republican nominee in New York's 23rd district, as a moderate. I realize that those of us in the media use that term to distinguish certain Republicans and Democrats from their more ideologically consistent colleagues, but in this case, the label was inappropriate.

Scozzafava doesn't only support abortion rights - often a marker for Republican "moderates" - she supports gay marriage. But she doesn't only support gay marriage; she supported President Barack Obama's stimulus proposal that not a single House Republican favored. But she didn't just support the stimulus package; she supports the Employee Free Choice Act (what opponents call "card check"), which is opposed by virtually the entire business community. And in the end, of course, she endorsed the Democrat in the race.

Scozzafava is a liberal Republican by any standard, and she should have been labeled as such. She is more liberal than every Republican in the House of Representatives and many Democrats.

The Republican county chairmen who picked Scozzafava should have appreciated how much opposition her selection would have generated, and they should have been aware of the likelihood that the Conservative Party would have picked its own nominee, thereby dividing the GOP.

Of course, Scozzafava would have in all likelihood held the seat for the GOP if Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman had not been in the race. And Hoffman might not have held it as the Republican nominee.

I also thought it amusing that by the end of the elections in Virginia and New Jersey so many observers were talking about how terrible Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Chris Christie were as candidates.

Sorry, but a year ago everyone I talked with, including New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D), told me that Christie was by far the GOP's strongest candidate in the Garden State. It's not as if the state's Republican Party has produced a large stable of potential statewide candidates to choose from.

It's certainly fair to criticize the governor-elect's campaign and his performance during the race, but let's not rewrite history. Christie was good enough to win. And he did.

Deeds soundly beat two Northern Virginia primary opponents, winning more than 45 percent in Fairfax and Arlington counties. Moreover, after his primary victory, he was widely hailed as the kind of Democrat who could keep the governorship in Democratic hands. Most mid-June polls showed the gubernatorial race close.

Again, he and his campaign had plenty of weaknesses and mistakes, but portraying him as some kind of inept buffoon who never really had a chance is rewriting history. And former Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) ran an extraordinarily good campaign.

The "Pollster of the Cycle Award," in my opinion, goes to SurveyUSA, which once again proved its worth, at least in pre-election polls. The firm's final Virginia numbers were eerily close - the firm showed McDonnell winning 58 percent to 40 percent in its Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 poll, just shy of the actual final margin: McDonnell 59 percent, Deeds 41 percent.

In New Jersey, where Christie won by 4 points, the last SurveyUSA poll showed Christie up by 3.

Public Policy Polling was the runner-up in Virginia (it had McDonnell up by 14 points), while in New Jersey PPP (Christie by 6 points) and Quinnipiac University (Christie by 2 points) were narrowly behind SurveyUSA in accuracy.

SurveyUSA, PPP and Quinnipiac, however, dramatically overstated the support of Independent Chris Daggett in New Jersey.

Where there are winners, there are usually also losers. None of the major public pollsters was dramatically wrong in Virginia, but Research 2000, which polled for DailyKos, showed McDonnell with only a 10-point lead in late October, primarily because it overstated Deeds' support.

In New Jersey, the Monmouth University/Gannett poll erred when it showed Corzine up by 2 points in its last survey. But by far the worst-performing survey in either state was Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for Democracy Corps in New Jersey.

Democracy Corps polling showed Corzine pulling ahead in his race in early October and stretching his lead to 4 points (41 percent to 36 percent for Christie) among likely voters and 5 points in a higher-turnout electorate in its Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 survey. The survey showed Daggett drawing in the midteens. He actually drew just less than 6 percent.

Finally, after the results were in, I received e-mails - one from a group favoring public financing of campaigns and another from a candidate running against wealthy opponents - claiming that Corzine's defeat and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's (I) narrow victory constituted a statement about voters' views of wealthy self-funders.

"Millionaire self-funders beware" is how the Senate campaign of former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) put it. "Voters ... are tired of self-financed, Wall Street-connected candidates," Public Campaign wrote in a press release.

The idea that Corzine lost because he spent so much money or self-funded is laughable. His defeat was a referendum on the past four years and particularly the state's economy and tax issues. As for Bloomberg, his spending did cause a backlash, but so did his perceived arrogance, especially his efforts to change the law that would have prevented him from seeking a third term.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the The Rothenberg Political Report, and a regular columnist for Roll Call Newspaper.
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