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By Jay Cost

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What the Voters Told Us Last Night

The following points are what we know for certain:

1. The voters of Virginia declared a preference for Bob McDonnell over Creigh Deeds.

2. The voters of New Jersey declared a preference for Chris Christie over Jon Corzine.

3. The voters of New York's Twenty-Third Congressional District declared a preference for Bill Owens over Doug Hoffman.

And that's it. Anything else is reading between the lines, and subject to the haziness that necessarily goes along with such an endeavor.

As the great political scientist, E.E. Schattschneider, once famously said (and I'm paraphrasing here): the voters are a sovereign with a vocabulary of just two words, yes and no; moreover, they can only speak when spoken to. Reflecting on this insight over the years, I have found it to be one of the most profound lessons for understanding American elections.

The nature of our electoral system is such that voters are given a very limited role in the process of governance. With the exception of ballot initiatives, they do not get to sound off on specific issues. And, when it comes to elections for office, they only get to register their preferences for a candidate. They do not get to indicate what they liked about their candidate, what issues motivated them, what problems are worrying them, and so on. The exit polls provide us with some insight on their motivations, but they remain fundamentally obscured.

If the voice of the people is limited, our interpretation of what they have said must rest heavily on our filling in the many gaps. That can be a tricky endeavor - for we're always inclined to fill in those gaps with our own voice, interpreting electoral returns in a way consistent with our own ideological dispositions. That can sometimes cause trouble.

A great case in point comes from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like most of America's successful presidents - Roosevelt had keen democratic instincts. He knew how to build a winning political coalition, and more importantly he knew how to hold it together. He won a big victory in the 1932 election, which he took as a mandate to initiate the New Deal. The voters agreed. They gave him even more congressional Democrats in the 1934 midterm, which he took as a mandate to expand the New Deal to include items like Social Security. Again, the voters agreed. When he stood for reelection in 1936, he won a resounding victory.

This is the point at which the story of the Squire of Hyde Park takes a turn. Historians shift from praising him to criticizing him. He took his resounding victory in '36 as a mandate to do several things, including cutting spending, purging New Deal opponents from the Democratic Party, and packing the Supreme Court. But, as it turned out, that is not what the public wanted - and they turned on Roosevelt in the 1938 midterms, sending nearly 100 Republicans to the House of Representatives and leaving his majority there entirely dependent upon Southern Democrats.

Viewed in hindsight, it's easy to be critical of Roosevelt, as many historians are. But when we examine matters from his perspective, it gets more difficult to blame old FDR. After all, he took his previous victories - in '32 and '34 - as mandates to promote big changes in the structure of the government. And he was right! So, what is so ridiculous about the proposition that '36 gave him leave to alter the Supreme Court? More generally, why were '32 and '34 mandates for what FDR wanted, but '36 was not? Judged solely by the votes themselves, we'd have to conclude that '36 was his largest victory to date, and thus perhaps his broadest mandate yet. But, as it turned out, that's not what it was at all.

This points to the difficulty in scrutinizing electoral returns for deeper meaning. I'm not saying it is impossible. It is possible. I do it myself from time to time. But it's a very difficult task because - as I noted above - the voice of the electorate is so very constrained. You have to fill in the blank notes for yourself - and if a maestro like Roosevelt could have so much trouble with that...what hope do the rest of us have?

Personally, I'm a big believer in a humble, narrow interpretation of election returns. On a purely political level, I think a politician is better served by under-interpreting his mandate than by over-interpreting it. It's true sometimes they mean big things - 1860 and 1896 come instantly to mind. But other times they don't mean much of anything. In the earlier part of this year, I argued strenuously that many Democrats were wildly over-interpreting Barack Obama's election in 2008. I disagreed when they pronounced it to be the dramatic inauguration of the new, permanent Democratic majority. My attitude then, as now, is that this is inconsistent with a fair and broad read of electoral history, the party system, and the general mood of the public. So, my narrow interpretation of last night is that the results we saw are in tension with that permanent majority hypothesis - and that they are more consistent with the alternative theory of continuing, robust competition between the two parties.

Was last night a "message" to Barack Obama? Maybe yes. Maybe no. I have my suspicions, but ultimately I'm not sure because he was not on the ballot anywhere. I think last night can be understood as a cautionary tale for the President - and here I would point to the case of New Jersey. Times are tough in the United States of America. And Corzine's defeat should remind us that when politicians get the blame for tough times - no amount of campaigning, spending, union organizing, or anything of the sort can spare them from the wrath of the voters, even in a state that is highly partial to their side of the aisle. Jon Corzine got the blame for the tough times in New Jersey, and that meant an end to his political career. If Barack Obama ends up getting blamed for these tough times - no number of rallies, campaign dollars, magnificent speeches in filled-to-capacity stadiums, or optimistic slogans will keep him in the White House.

A large portion of the country is now prepared to assign blame to him, in some form or another. The RealClearPolitics average shows a large minority - 44% - registering disapproval of the President's handling of the job. That is not just the conservative base of the GOP. It is larger than that, and that number could grow over the next year. The lesson from last night, I think, is that Jon Corzine won roughly the share of voters who approve of the job he was doing - and his opponents won those who disapproved. The same fate awaits Barack Obama. He'll be judged on how well he governs - and if the country deems him to have done an insufficient job, all the politicking between now and the end of time will not do a thing for him.

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-Jay Cost