What REALLY happened in the 2005 elections

The media storyline from yesterday's election results has been, for the most part, that Democrats picked up big victories, and that it was all bad news for the Republicans. And that President Bush, bogged down in incompetence (Hurricane Katrina) and malice ("he lied - people died!"), pandering to the right-wing (Alito) and heading an out-of-control criminal White House (Libby and Rove) is acting as an anchor, dragging down the Republican Party, leading to these spectacular Democratic wins. We see it in the New York Times:

After months of sagging poll ratings, scandal and general political unrest, the Republicans badly needed some good news in Tuesday's elections for governor. What they got instead was a clear-cut loss in a red state, and an expected but still painful defeat in a blue one.

The Republican loss in Virginia, which President Bush carried with 54 percent just a year ago, came after an 11th-hour campaign stop by Mr. Bush and the kind of all-out Republican effort to mobilize the vote that reaped rich rewards last year.

We see it from the ever-reliable Associated Press:

Democrats cleaned up big in off-year elections from New Jersey to California, sinking the candidate who embraced President Bush in the final days of the Virginia governor's campaign.

The AP really wanted to get that point across:

Bush put his wispy political prestige on the line in the Virginia governor's race and lost Tuesday when the candidate he embraced in a last-minute campaign stop was soundly defeated.

We see it from CBS News:

How worried should the Republicans be?

"Very worried," Larry Sabato the director of politics at the University of Virginia, told CBS News' The Early Show. "They really are in danger of losing a substantial number of seats in Congress and, more importantly, key governorships in 2006."

That's been the tone and tenor of virtually all of the mainstream media reporting on the elections.

But instead of just taking the media storyline, it's important to look at what actually happened. This is an off-year election, an election with no national campaign taking place. No Presidential election, no Senatorial elections, no US Representative elections. Just state and local issues. The media template is that Bush has rotten approval numbers, Bush is a drag on Republicans, the Democrats won big, and this bodes ill for the Republicans next year.

Well, it is certainly true that Bush is polling badly at the moment. As to whether that's a drag on anything, that would be tough to prove. In 2001, the off-cycle election took place less than 8 weeks after September 11, and just about 4 weeks after military operations began in Afghanistan. Bush's approval numbers were spectacular. So if Bush's popularity is relevant to the discussion of yesterday's election result, it would have to show itself in a significant overperformance by the Democrats in 2005 as compared to the same elections in 2001.

And that's not what happened.

New Jersey:
4 years ago, Jim McGreevey took 57.5% of the two-party vote. This year, Corzine took only 54.6%. Corzine actually drew over 100,000 fewer Democratic votes for Governor than McGreevey did, while Forrester improved on Schundler's total by over 28,000. The bottom line is that the Democrats won the office, but the Republican performance improved over the same cycle four years ago.

Virginia:
In 2001, Mark Warner won the office with 52.5% of the two-party vote. With an independent candidate siphoning off primarily Republican support this year, Tim Kaine took 52.9% of the two-party vote. Kaine bested Warner's raw vote total by slightly more than 38,000, while Kilgore, the Republican, beat Earley's total by about 22,000. Basically, this result was virtually identical to the same election 4 years ago.

So, in the two Gubernatorial elections which are being portrayed as bellwethers, apparently just because Democrats won them, the Democrat performance was significantly worse in NJ, and virtually the same in VA. What this would seem to mean is that yesterday's elections were local elections, and any attempt to draw conclusions about the effects of Bush's approval ratings, or the likely results of the elections to be held next fall, are just so much spin.

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