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What Last Night's Results Tell Us

What Last Night's Results Tell Us

By Sean Trende - November 6, 2013

When I wrote my "primer" for Tuesday's elections, I was basically trying to establish some benchmarks ahead of time, to sort of lock myself in for the postmortem analysis that would follow. As it stands, it looks like the returns are consistent with a mixed electoral environment for the parties.

The pre-election analyses listed below are direct quotes of my "bottom lines" for each race; the "result" sections afterward are original:

(1) Washington State Senate Race, District 26:

Pre-election analysis: In a vacuum, given the primary numbers, I’d expect [Republican state Rep. Jan] Angel to win by four to six points. When you figure in the influx of cash from third party groups and [Democrat Nathan] Schlicher’s increasing establishment of himself as an incumbent, I might expect Angel to win by two points or so. This would also be consistent with the drop-off in Democratic performance of about four points that we’ve seen all year.

If Angel holds on to her 10-point margin [over Schlicher in the primary], it would be a very good sign for Republicans that the president’s diminished job approval since August is weighing his party down. If it’s a close race, I’d consider it something of a neutral environment for the party, with a thumb on the scale either way depending on which side wins. And if she loses by more than a couple points, it would suggest that the Republican brand really is causing problems for its candidates in swing districts.

Result: For now, Angel leads by about three points. That “for now” is important. Washington has mail-in elections, so there is still time for that number to change; it will take weeks to get the final result. With that said, it seems unlikely that the vote total will shift more than a few points in either direction. What we have now is mostly consistent with a neutral-to-GOP-favorable environment, and while the final total may become more consistent with a neutral-to-Democratic-favorable environment, the margin seems unlikely to move into territory we might associate with an electoral blowout for either party.

(2) Virginia Attorney General:

Pre-election analysis: If Republican state Sen. Mark Obenshain . . . wins, it will provide some evidence that the personalities up-ticket really are the story there. If he loses, Republicans will argue that the up-ticket losses were too much for him to survive. There’s some truth to this -- due to the decline in split-ticket voting, he’s at an enormous disadvantage being at the bottom of the ticket. But if he loses by more than, say, a point or two, this argument will be pretty hollow, and we’ll have a decent data point showing that Virginia’s march toward purplish-blue status isn’t just an “Obama electorate” phenomenon.

Result: As of this writing, this is an extremely close race. Given how close the gubernatorial race ended up, I’d say this is consistent with a neutral-to-Democrat-favorable environment.

(3) Virginia Demographics:

Pre-election analysis: Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe has invested scads of money trying to replicate the Obama turnout patterns. We should probably expect a bounce-back in Democratic groups from 2009, simply because that environment was so overwhelmingly lousy for Democrats (if we don’t, it’s a big problem for the party). But if the breakdowns look like 2012 or 2008, it’s a pretty good sign for Democrats.

Result: There was a bounce-back from 2009 lows, as expected, but the demographic shifts were probably about more than a bounce-back. To use racial crosstabs as an example, the 2012 electorate was 70 percent white, while the 2009 electorate was 78 percent white. The 2013 electorate was 72 percent white. Most of that difference came from increasing the African-American share of the electorate vis-à-vis 2009. This is probably the most encouraging data point for the Democrats for the night.

Other data points were less encouraging. For example, the ideological makeup of the electorate was more of a wash. The 2012 electorate self-described as 24 percent liberal, 45 percent moderate, and 31 percent conservative. In 2009, the electorate was 18 percent liberal, 42 percent moderate, and 40 percent conservative. In 2013, 20 percent of the electorate called itself liberal, 44 percent moderate and 36 percent conservative, which is a touch closer to the 2009 results.

We should also observe that more voters opposed Obamacare than supported it; 41 percent strongly opposed it while only 27 percent strongly supported it. The president sports a 46 percent approval rating in the state; 53 percent disapprove. The blame for the shutdown was only narrowly apportioned to the GOP: 48 percent to 45 percent. Fifty-two percent said that government does too much.

In other words, even in a pretty favorable demographic environment for Democrats, the GOP’s message had some resonance. Nevertheless, this is a plus for Democrats, suggesting that they might be able to come reasonably close to replicating the Obama electorates.

(4) Virginia House:

Pre-election analysis: It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see Democrats pick up some of these seats regardless, but if they pick up, say, five or six, it could signal, once again, that the Obama electorate is replicable in an off-year election. If Republicans only lose a few seats, even in an awfully favorable environment for Democrats in Northern Virginia, it could suggest real problems for that coalition in the absence of Obama atop the ticket.

Result: Right now it looks like Democrats have picked up one seat, net. They defeated two GOP incumbents, but lost an open seat in southwest Virginia. Only one of the seats Democrats won was in Northern Virginia, the other was a heavily Democratic seat near Williamsburg that the GOP had won in a surprise in 2011.

It’s easy to chalk this up to gerrymandering, but 14 Republican delegates occupy seats that Obama won with more than 52 percent of the two-party vote. The Northern Virginia seat that Democrats won had given the president and Sen. Tim Kaine around 60 percent of the vote in 2012, while the Republican statewide ticket had performed worse than its statewide average here in 2009. The Williamsburg seat was a similar story; it was a touch more Republican in 2012 than the other seat, although it was a touch more Democratic in 2009.

In other words, there are several Republican-held House of Delegates seats that Democrats could win in a strong enough environment, and with the shutdown and Ken Cuccinelli’s problems in urban areas, this looked like it could be such an environment. Given how things turned out, we probably have to call this neutral-to-favorable for the GOP, even factoring in how hard it can be to beat incumbents.

(5) New Jersey Exits/Christie Coattails:

Pre-election analysis: If [Chris Christie] manages to carry the Hispanic vote or to get more than, say, 25 percent of the African-American vote, it would be significant.

Result: As it turns out, Christie won 21 percent of the African-American vote, and 51 percent of the Hispanic vote. Almost a third of Democrats voted for Christie, as did two-thirds of Independents. That said, he had no coattails: Republicans picked up two Assembly seats and made no gains in the Senate.

Also, a plurality of voters here opposed Obamacare, and Obama’s job approval had a fairly anemic 51/49 split. That said, people here didn’t much care for the GOP, and blamed it for the shutdown.

I think a conservative candidate performing so well with African-Americans and Hispanics is an important data point. The fact that Christie was able to carry the latter group outright suggests that Hispanics aren’t as rigid in their voting patterns as many analysts suggest. But this point was always more about evaluating Christie’s win and what it might mean for 2016 than it was about the national environment, so I don’t really weigh it that much.

(6) N.Y. County Races:

Pre-election analysis: It would take a pretty favorable Republican environment to hold on in Westchester, and a Republican hold in Nassau (where the executive has had a somewhat rocky tenure) would serve as a reminder that a lot of these Northeastern counties aren’t as Democratic as the presidential top lines might suggest.

Result: Republicans actually did hold on to both seats, and by double-digit margins. That a social conservative like Robert P. Astorino could hold on in Westchester County is pretty surprising. This is an advantage for Republicans.

There are other scattered results to look at -- Terry McAuliffe’s surprisingly narrow win in Virginia; the defeat of a tax in Colorado -- but the overall picture is pretty clear to me: For all the hubbub about the damage to the Republican brand, their candidates held up fairly well Tuesday night. We continued to see drop-offs in Democratic performance using the 2012 presidential elections as a benchmark, and we saw an awful lot of Republicans win competitive races in blue territory. Democrats simply can’t afford to have that happen in 2014 if they want to make substantial gains in the House.

But none of this should be taken as evidence that the GOP has suffered no damage to its brand. With the president’s job approval dipping into the low 40s, the environment was ripe for a GOP wave election. Instead, we’re seeing overall performances that I would describe as neutral-to-perhaps-favorable for the GOP.

Still, overall these results really do throw a wrench into the prevailing wisdom that the GOP is a broken coalition on life support, in danger of losing the House. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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