2009 Elections

The Four M's of Millennial Politics

Pundits were quick to point out that  the percentage of Millennial voters (those 29 and younger)  in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections last week were roughly half of what they were in 2008. This led the voice of what passes for wisdom inside the Beltway, Charlie Cook, to proclaim, "we knew that young and minority voters who had never cast a ballot before they did for Barack Obama last year were very unlikely to show up at the polls this year or next."

His extrapolation of two state's unique odd  year election results into a guaranteed outcome in the 2010 general election is breathtaking for what it reveals about Cook's own biases and those of his peers. It's reminiscent of James Carville's comments prior to Barack Obama's 2008 primary triumph that "we have a word in politics for those who  are counting on the youth vote to win. We call them losers." But at least Carville saw the light after looking at the surge in  young voters for Democrats in 2008 and recognizing that a new generation, with different attitudes toward political participation than the preceding generation, Generation X,  had arrived in the American electorate.

Unfortunately, too many of those operating as if the world didn't change in 2008 are Democrats, whose misreading of last week's results could cost the party dearly in 2010.  The two gubernatorial losses cannot simply be dismissed, as the White House tried to do, as merely a reflection of circumstances unique to New Jersey and Virginia, unrelated to national campaign strategy. In reality, the 2009 election returns once again demonstrated the importance of aligning all four M's of political campaigns--Messenger, Message, Media and Money-with Millennial Generation attitudes and behavior if any campaign, Democrat or Republican, hopes to be as successful in winning the votes of young people as Barack Obama was in 2008.

A year ago Obama won 60% of the vote in Virginia among  18-29 year-olds. In New Jersey his margin was even greater, 67%. Even after taking into account Obama's overwhelming support among minorities and considering only white Millennials, the appeal of this particular messenger  to this cohort is clear. Nationally, Obama won 54% of all white Millennial Generation voters. He won 42% of white Millennials  in Virginia, reflecting that Southern state's relatively  conservative views. But even this was well above the support Obama received from older white voters. He also carried 58% of New Jersey white Millennials, reflecting the overall partisan and ideological orientation of that state.

Neither Democratic gubernatorial candidate in last week's election had a biography that matched the bi-racial, community organizer, outsider image of the President. Jon Corzine's Wall Street riches and political insider image hardly matches the selfless, socially concerned profile of Obama. Corzine's lesser appeal to Millennials  is partially a reflection of that difference. While Millennials were the only generational cohort to prefer Corzine over the Republican winner, Chris Christie, Corzine's support fell to 57% among all Millennials and 42% among white Millennials. Coupled with the decline in the Millennial Generation's  contribution to  the electorate, from 17% to 9%, even this level of support wasn't enough to re-elect Corzine.

Creigh Deeds' bio was even less like Obama's,  with a political career focused on playing the inside game in the State Capitol and appealing to the good old boys in rural Virginia. This was one reason he became one of the first Democrats to actually lose the Millennial vote to a Republican, 44% for Deeds vs. 54% for McDonnell. And despite his focus on attempting to win over more conservative Democrats, Deeds actually lost white Millennials to McDonnell by a 2:1 margin.

But the President's appeal to Millennials went beyond his unique personal qualities. He also had a message that helped engage and motivate young people from its overall theme of change to his specific call to help young people pay for college by expanding opportunities to serve their community. By contrast, Corzine's record contained nothing that was particularly appealing to Millennials. And Deeds' attempt to run a campaign based on social issues ran directly counter to the Millennial Generation's greater interest in pressing economic issues like jobs. McDonnell's campaign, by contrast was focused like a laser, as President Bill Clinton used to say, on the state's need to improve economic opportunity for all of its citizens.

Still, having the right messenger and message will not win over Millennials unless a campaign reaches out to them using the media to which they pay attention, expending sufficient resources to break through the daily chatter that is also a part of the generation's unique behavior. Corzine certainly spent plenty of his personal money on his campaign, but most of that money was devoted to television commercials, the least effective way to reach Millennials. By contrast, in Virginia, McDonnell used the Internet extensively, including a major Google ad buy late in the campaign, to make sure his message of social issue moderation and economic opportunity was heard by Millennials. 

There are many things that are different about this newest generation of Americans. At this point, Millennials identify as Democrats by nearly 2:1 and are the first generation in forty years to contain more self-perceived liberals than conservatives. Millennials are positioned to make the Democrats the majority party for decades. But Democrats cannot take them for granted because in one very fundamental way Millennials are no different than any older generation.

Like all voters, Millennials are more likely to participate in elections and vote for candidates who appeal to their concerns with a convincing and credible message that is heard often enough to make an impact. Democrats should take a lesson from their President's successful campaign in 2008 that used that formula to win two out of three Millennial votes. Or, they could spend some more time analyzing and explaining away last week's two gubernatorial defeats only to discover that Republicans have already completed their analysis and are ready to launch a  campaign with just the right four M's to appeal to Millennials and give the GOP victory in 2010.

Cross-Posted at Future Majority.

More Interesting 2009 Elections Analyses

Thanks for sending me your recommendations on interesting analyses of last week's election.  I offer up these four for further chewing over:

John Heileman, New York Magazine, Sucking Sound.

Nate Silver, 538, Independent Voters and Empty Explanations.

Tom Davis, US News, 7 Lessons.

Frank Rich, New York Times, The Night They Drove The Tea Parties Down.

And if you haven't checked out our analysis yet, here it is

Feel free to post other pieces you found interesting and helpful.  Know there is more out there.

Thoughts on the Best Election Analysis?

Trying to pull together and review the best election analysis from the week so far.   If you have any pieces you have particularly liked please share them with me below.   Would appreciate it.  Never know what you miss.

The 2009 Exit Polls

You can find them on CNN or MSNBC.  CNN also has previous year polls going back many years.  

Use them to do your own analysis of the elections.  I can look at them for hours. 


A New Economic Strategy for Hard Times and Good Times

You might not know it from what passes for economic commentary on cable TV, but the U.S. economy remains pretty sick.   Last week's report of 3.5 percent GDP growth in the third quarter seemed like cause to celebrate - until you looked more carefully at the data and saw that virtually all of the upside came from temporary government stimulus.  As the head of a revered British firm told a crowd of fellow CEOs in Washington the same day, "if we gave that many drugs to a dead man, he'd dance too."    The next day, the report on personal incomes showed consumption continuing to slump, along with incomes.  In coming months, the media and the administration will trumpet more reports of "good news" which actually will provide little comfort to most American businesses and households.   GDP may grow even faster in the fourth quarter as the stimulus continues to run its course and businesses stop cutting inventories that already are down to the bone.   After that, we could yet face a second dip down, a possibility raised last week by Harvard economist Martin Feldstein.

We could even face more upheaval in financial markets already growing giddy again.  In fact, Nouriel Roubini, the NYU economist who warned us in 2006 and 2007 that the end of the housing bubble could wreck the financial markets, now sees a new bubble forming from trillions in new investments by financial institutions playing the declining dollar off of other currencies.  Moreover, he also sees an inevitable bust coming, with devastating new costs.  He's certainly correct that currency plays are very risky, since exchange rates can turn unexpectedly on a dime.   That's actually a variant of what happened to the Long Term Credit Management fund in the late-1990s.  The big bets placed by that single fund, and the liabilities of its Wall Street investors, nearly brought down the financial system.  What's happening now is on a much bigger scale, and the underlying system is a lot more vulnerable.

If we do dodge Roubini's latest bullet, the bad news eventually will run its course - though it probably will take at least another year, and longer than that for employment to recover.  By that time, it will be more obvious that we don't have a national strategy to avoid another boom-and-bust cycle and produce sustained gains for most people.   It's hard to face, but the Treasury and Congress have to give up their comforting assumption that the handful of financial institutions which dominate our capital markets are driven to behave in ways that ultimately produce good times for everyone.  In some periods, markets do work nearly as well as that - from the latter 1950s and through the 1960s, for example, and again in the latter 1980s and through the 1990s.  At other times, distorting new conditions bound the system, and markets go a little haywire.  That's what unfolded in the latter 1920s and through the 1930s, again in the 1970s, and now it's happening again.  So it's time to retire the economic strategies of the last 25 years or so, which relied on efficient markets to drive those who run its largest institutions to work their will for everyone else's benefit. 

What we need now is a new debate over the terms of a new economic strategy.  One place to begin is by limiting some of the risks taken by institutions that dominate critical markets, which the rest of us also depend on.  It's hard to do, because it's very difficult to even measure and monitor those risks.  It also means effectively limiting the profits available to the society's richest companies, and how often does that happen?

A greater challenge will involve facing up to the way that the fast-evolving global economy has undermined our capacity to create jobs and deliver rising incomes for most people.   It's not about sending jobs to China.  Rather, it's about how hard it's become for many companies, facing intense competition from tens of thousands of new foreign and domestic businesses created in globalization, to raise their prices when their cost go up.  So as their health care and energy costs have marched up, they've cut other costs - starting with jobs and wages.  And whenever this crisis and downturn truly end, the intense competitive pressures that indirectly eat into the American incomes will be as strong as ever.  

The debate has to begin with the recognition that in this period at least, markets won't cure these problems.  If we truly want to restore steady wage gains, there will be no way to avoid serious government steps to slow future cost increases in health care and energy. A new strategy also has to acknowledge our only certain competitive edge in a global economy.  In the country where the idea-based economy took hold first, our companies and workers still do better than most of their counterparts elsewhere in developing powerful new innovations, adopting them across the economy, and adapting them to their own particular circumstances.   We have to generously fund both the seeds and the infrastructure of innovation.  And we should help everyone develop the flexibility demanded to operate effectively in innovation-dense workplaces, by funding universal opportunities for people to upgrade their skills and education every year.

What is happening in the New York media market?

New York - Sitting in a New York hotel room this morning and it is hard to not notice that last night Republicans flipped the New Jersey Governorship, county execs in Nassau and Westchester, and the mayorality in Stamford, CT.   A non-Democrat and very public Bush supporter won the NY mayor's race, and Chris Dodd, a Democratic Senator from nearby Connecticut, is trailing badly in early polls. 

Any thoughts about this?

Who will Party with Whom in 2010?

As America enters a new era driven by the civic political orientation of the Millennial Generation and minorities, each party must decide the type of ideological and demographic coalition that will give it the best shot at future success.  This week's elections provided some clear clues to both Democrats and Republicans on which strategic direction to take.  Whether either party's national leadership has the political perspicacity to follow that path to success in the 2010 off-year elections and beyond, however,  is far less clear.

The special election in upstate New York's 23rd Congressional District seemed to shine the brightest light on where the American electorate is headed.  The state's local Republican Party leadership, mindful of Barack Obama's 52% majority in this once heavily Republican district, nominated a moderate, (some would later say liberal) candidate, Dede Scozzafava. Her political profile was similar to two of the most successful Republicans in New York history, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Jacob Javits, both of whom served in America's last civic era more than a half century ago.  But the GOP base outside of  New York's "North Country"  had long since moved past these faded images from the 1960s and was more interested in supporting a candidate whose conservative fiscal policies matched his attitudes on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

Taking advantage of the presence of a separate ballot line, national Republicans led by Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, rallied behind the candidacy of Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, whose ideas fit their conception of the ideology that would unite and excite the GOP base.  But even in a Congressional district that hadn't elected a Democrat to Congress since the formation of the Republican Party that approach failed to generate a victory for Hoffman, who got only 46% of the vote.   Even after dropping out and endorsing the Democrat, Scozzafava got 5% of the vote from some very loyal Republicans, giving Owens a 3% margin of victory, very similar to Obama's margin in the district in 2008.  While it would be wrong to extrapolate these results from such a unique district  to the American electorate as a whole, the outcome does suggest that a strident and consistently conservative ideological approach will not be the way for Republicans to regain majority status anytime soon.

At the same time that they were losing in New York, Republicans were successful in both the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections.  By running positive campaigns focused on job creation and lower taxes, while downplaying social issues, both Robert McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, were able to stop a recent streak of Democratic victories in those states.  All of this, as one of the smartest political journalists in DC, Ron Brownstein has pointed out, is reminiscent of the appeal and turmoil that Ross Perot's 1992 candidacy for President brought to American politics.

There is indeed much that is similar in the current Republican mantra against Democratic spending and Perot's message. Perot's appeal was based on his own "odd man out" persona and a megalomaniacal focus on the nation's budget deficit.  But Republicans tend to forget that Perot supporters were relentlessly secular. They rejected both the social agenda of the Republican Party and the big government tendencies of the Democrats. This makes any attempt by the GOP to follow the approach they used in upstate New York of melding government restrictions on social behavior and small government economic conservatism both ideologically inconsistent and politically difficult.

Others have suggested that the correct path to Republican recovery lies in marrying libertarian notions of limited government with that philosophy's social liberalism. Certainly the close votes on gay marriage in Maine and Washington, not to mention the vote to legalize marijuana by the citizens of Breckenridge, Colorado, suggests there is at least as much political potential in advocating tolerance on social issues as there is in hewing to conservative doctrine.

Writing in this month's edition of Fast Company, Silicon Valley's ideological bible, Carlos Watson, a high tech and media entrepreneur, argued the next election would provide the moment to build a lasting coalition of fiscal conservatives and social liberals.  While this week's special elections didn't offer the voter's such a choice, the candidacies for the California Republican gubernatorial nomination of both Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and Steve Poizner, another former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made his fortune monetizing GPS technology, may well provide a testing ground for this theory next year.

However, history and current polling data does not suggest this approach is likely to be any more successful for the Republican party than doubling down on conservatism was in New York's 23rd Congressional District.  The most recent WSJ/NBC poll by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff suggested that the American public favors a quite different approach.   A large majority (63%) of the electorate said the government had either "done the right amount of intervention [in the economy] or needed to do more." Even 42% of non-aligned or loosely aligned voters in the middle of the electorate agreed with this statement. In other words, while Republicans stick to Reagan era ideas on the size and scope of government, the electorate is actually more interested in voting for candidates who will support a larger role for  government in restoring  the health of the U.S. economy.

Democrats, instead of running away from President Obama, should follow his lead in offering even more positive ways that government can protect middle class Americans from the worst excesses of the free market.  That may be the opposite of Libertarianism, but it's just what the public wants.

Despite yesterday's results,  conservatives seem intent on launching an intense civil war for the hearts and minds of the Republican Party in a series of high profile primaries next year. Undeterred by the results from New York's 23rd Congressional district, or for that matter the election to Congress of California's Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi in a district that  only recently become blue, the GOP seems only too willing  to form the type of circular firing squads that used to characterize the Democrats when Ronald Reagan dominated U.S. politics  two decades ago. Republican  leaders should instead follow the more likely road to victory demonstrated by  the pragmatic and practical politics of Virginia's Bob McDonnell.  Only that type of candidacy, grounded in the new realities of the electorate, can provide a real opportunity for that party's recovery from its current, historically low levels of support among American voters.

The public's new found willingness to use government as an economic force is the direct result of both the arrival of the Millennial Generation and the increased representation of minorities in the American electorate. Together these forces are demographically destined to become a larger and larger part of the population, providing Democrats a wind at their backs for decades-- if they will only listen to the voters and read the lessons of this week's special elections correctly. 

Sifting Through the Economic Messages From the Elections Last Night

As the Huffington Post has been reporting all morning, ABC sums up the New Jersey and Virginia exit polls this way:

Vast economic discontent marked the mood of Tuesday's off-year voters, portending potential trouble for incumbents generally and Democrats in particular in 2010. Still the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey looked less like a referendum on Barack Obama than a reflection of their own candidates and issues.

The gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey looked less like a referendum on Barack Obama than a reflection of their own candidates and issues. Still, the two Republican victories, in predominantly Democratic New Jersey and in purple Virginia, had to smart.

Just under half the voters in Virginia, 48 percent, approved of the way Obama is handling his job, rising to 57 percent in New Jersey. Most in both states, in any case, said the president was not a factor in their vote.

Perhaps most striking were economic views: A vast 89 percent in New Jersey and 85 percent in Virginia said they were worried about the direction of the nation's economy in the next year; 56 percent and 53 percent, respectively, said they were "very" worried about it.

Voters who expressed the highest levels of economic discontent heavily favored the Republican candidates in both states – underscoring the challenge Obama and his party may face in 2010 if economic attitudes don't improve. The analogy is to 1994, when nearly six in 10 voters said the economy was in bad shape, and they favored the out-of-power Republicans by 26 points, helping the GOP to a 52-seat gain and control of Congress for the first time in 42 years.

In Virginia on Tuesday, voters who were "very" worried about the economy concern supported the Republican winner, Bob McDonnell by a wide margin, 77-23 percent. In New Jersey, while the gap wasn't quite so broad, voters who were most worried about the economy backed the Republican Chris Christie by 61-34 percent as he unseated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine.

Listening to the Republican pundits last night what you heard was that the electorate, just a year after giving Democrats the most control of Washington they have had in over 40 years, have now turned around and embraced the low-tax, small government, fiscal austerity economic strategy of the GOP.  The problem with this argument is that last night, voters in Maine and Washington also overwhemingly rejected statewide "TABOR" initiatives to cap tax increases. In fact, in both these states, bond initiatives passed, creating more investment in transportation and schools. 

As I wrote last night, the central battleground of American politics today is the economy and the increasingly difficult struggle of everyday people. The American public has resoundingly rejected the laissez-faire Republican approach of this decade, which left the typical family with shrinking incomes and spiraling debt, the nation in the worst recession in 70 years, and Wall Street in shambles.  They elected Democrats because they offered to make all this better, and refocus the debate not along the old conservative-crafted economic memes - taxes, size of government - but around offering a strategy relentlessly focused on helping them in their almost decade-long struggle to get their incomes up and families in better shape.

What Americans have seen from the Democrats this year is less than what they had hoped-- too much proximity to wealthy interests, worsening economic conditions, too much attention to issues separate from their struggle, and a lack of party coherence that is preventing Democrats from making Washington work again for them and not for the special interests.  It is the fundamental failure to make the economy the central issue of this Presidency that has left the door open for the Republicans.  It is also a door that it easily closed next year by the President and his team.

As I layed out in a front-page Huffington Post essay in early September, The Key to the Fall: Staying Focused on the Economy, the most urgent problem facing the country today is fashioning a successful strategy to transition America into the new economy of the 21st century. Depsite the fiscal pressures of the moment, this will not be done by returning to a politics of austerity, but rather acknowledging, forthrightly, that we must do more, invest smarter, raise our game in this much more competitive economy of the 21st century or risk national decline, reduced life propsects for our people, and lowered standards of living. 

This is not a politics of "recovery," a word that I think has become more magical thinking in Washington than a reflection of an economic strategy-- as if everything will just return back to the way it was, in the good ole days. That isn't going to happen. There is too much change, too much structural transformation that must happen.   We have to leave the succesful 20th century American economy behind, and embrace the new economy of the 21st-- one that is more globally competitive, technology-dense, universally wired, more idea- and intellectual property-driven and hopefully all constructed on top of a new low-carbon national footprint.

In poll after poll it is clear that the American people know that we have to make this national leap into a new economy, that the old economy simply isn't working for them anymore.  Do our leaders understand this as well as the American people do, and in particular, do the Democrats, those who are running our government?

To make this successful transition over the next 20-30 years, we will need a strategy, and will need to fight to make progress toward this strategy each year. Of all the lessons learned from this rather muddied election, I hope that is the one the leaders of both parties take away, leaving behind the now-outdated economic arguments of the 20th century, shifting the debate to a much more germane and important conversation about our new strategy for the 21st.

Some Early Evening Thoughts on Election Day, 2009

Note - I finished this up around 8:30pm tonight but due to technical difficulties was not able to post until close to midnight.

I’m not sure there is an awful lot that can be read into the results tonight.  Does anyone really believe if Deeds and Corzine lose that it had something to do with Barack Obama and the Washington Democrats?  Both Corzine and Deeds are damaged or ineffective candidates, and Obama is still running 30 points ahead of the national and Congressional Republicans.  How could he have been a drag on candidates when his numbers are still so strong in each of these two states and nationally?

And yes the Republicans are divided, and we saw, incredibly, the RNC and RNCC-backed GOP nominee endorse the Democratic nominee in a historically Republican NY-23.  So some warning signs for the Rs in this one too, as a wild embrace of a nostalgic, reactionary conservatism seems to be the very opposite of what the GOP or the country needs right now.  

In my mind tonight’s elections tell us very little we didn't already know, and tell us even less about where we will be next year.  Last year the Democrats were given the chance by the American people to run the government, and the country is still willing to let them lead, though they are a little less enthusiastic than before.  The GOP is deeply unpopular, particularly the Congressional Republicans, and remains a weakened, ideologically spent party, a party so weakened and lost that it is allowing truly fringe characters like Palin, Beck and Limbaugh to play way too big a role in its affairs these days.

Do we really believe the future of the GOP lies in candidates who view Glenn Beck as their mentor (Hoffman), went to Bob Jones University (McDonnell) are still active members of an organization called the Sons of the Confederacy (Joe Wilson) which has fringe views on race, or a woman who can field dress a moose (you know)?

What I feel about tonight is that we are in an in-between moment, half way through November of 2008 and 2010.  We are in a very different place than we were from a year ago, and will be in a very different place a year from now.   The Republicans are going through some necessary and tough internal struggles, which may push them closer to or pull them further from the American people.  Certainly if they are to make gains next year they will have to start doing more than say they hate Obama, and show they have changed, that they can and are offering a constructive alternative to the early Obama era politics.  Unless Obama and the Democrats really screw up it is hard to imagine the country returning to the GOP unless they make it clear that they are different, have changed, are offering something new and better.  

As for the Democrats it feels like the country is still with them, and wishing them to do better.   People are toying with the GOP and independent candidates a bit but there has been no whole sale abandonment of the Democratic majority - yet.  As I have written again and again, the key to the American electorate now is convincing them that you have an economic plan to help get ahead and live better lives.  If the Democrats offer that next year, and from the State of the Union on make the entire year about the struggle of every day people, about selling their new economic strategy for America to the American people and keep the focus relentlessly on their modern plan to create broad based prosperity (and it is a good plan btw) they will do fine.  The Democrats are still in control of their own destiny, and can, with a new strategic direction, reassert their control over the agenda and a nation looking for a better economic future and a politics focused on them and their struggles.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of many of my progressive friends, I have come to believe that if the President does not end up signing the mother of all health care bills this year it is not the end of the world.   I’m not convinced Democrats have figured out how to marry the politics and policy of reform, and it would be better to admit that than pass a bad bill.  It would be a sign of incredible maturity for Democrats to say we tried hard and didn’t get there rather than continuing to show the lack of party coherence on the matter to the public each and every day, a process that has already gone on for much too long.   Some first steps can be taken this year – like eliminating pre-existing conditions – that will be felt by real people across the country next year, showing the public that change is actually possible, and creating the conditions for much more significant reform over the next few years.

It will also allow the party to focus relentlessly on developing a comprehensive economic strategy for the country, which is simply more important than reforming health care.  This new agenda could include the nurturing of 21st century skills and schools, modernizing and reforming our health care system to among other things get costs down and coverage up, adopting a long term strategy to move America to a low carbon footprint, passing the Doha trade round and reaffirming our commitment to economic liberalization, reforming the broken immigration system that is just putting to much pressure on workers at the bottom end of the economic ladder, accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship, and cleaning up our broken financial system among other things.  Health care reform can be folded into a much broader multi-year effort to modernize the American economy, buying our leaders a little more time to get it right, and to put as much emphasis on controlling costs and offering choice as expanding coverage (by the way controlling costs will actually help us expand coverage and perhaps needs to be seen as a first step to expanding coverage rather than the other way around).

Developing this new economic strategy is the highest domestic policy for the nation, and for both political parties.  There is a strong argument that what has given the GOP their little window of opportunity tonight was the national Democratic Party’s taking their eye off the economic ball these last few months.  The good news for the Democrats is that this is a fixable problem. The bad news for the Republicans is that this desire for this new economic strategy is the direct result of years of GOP mismanagement of our economic affairs, a reality still very fresh in the American people’s minds, and one that will become much more salient and even more fresh the more the Democrats focus on offering their own economic strategy in the months to come.

For me the most important political dramas in America today are not in tonight’s election results or today’s temporal squabbles, but in seeing whether over the next year the Democrats can make the struggle of every day people their central focus, and if the Republicans can become more than the Party of No.   How the two parties handle these internal challenges will be much more important to determining what might happen next fall than anything that happens in what is clearly an off year election of only marginal national significance.

And be sure to read Mike Hais’s and Morley Winograd’s excellent essay on the failure of Creigh Deeds and what it means for the Democrats in the days ahead.  

Deeds Done

The likely defeat today of Democrat Creigh Deeds by Republican Bob McDonnell in Virginia's gubernatorial election sends an important message to both political parties, but it's not clear either one will listen to it. McDonnell's win will give Republicans something to crow about after three straight losing elections in the formerly dark red state, but his path to victory didn't follow the route currently being touted by conservatives in his party.  Democrats are inclined to dismiss Deeds likely defeat as an isolated incident that reflects more of Virginia's tradition to vote for the out party in the off year or the result of a lackluster campaign on Deeds' part.  For example, the Deeds campaign was nowhere to be found on the Net, even as McDonnell's campaign finished with a  Google Ad blast, targeted at both voters spending the day in Virginia and those many Virginians who spend their days working in DC.  (http://techpresident.com/blog-entry/importance-being-everywhere-vas-mcdonnell-and-nycs-bloomberg-go-full-google) The resulting failure of Democratic voters to turn out in sufficient numbers to make the election even close, however, sends an important message that Democratic leaders across America should not ignore.

Deeds McDonnellDeeds began the general election campaign by using McDonnell's master's thesis at Jerry Fallwell's Liberty University in an attempt to paint his opponent as a right wing ideologue on social issues. In effect, Deeds adopted the traditional Republican campaign strategy of  emphasizing social issues. But that approach lost its punch when American politics entered a new, civic-oriented era. In times like the present, broader societal concerns, not the politics of polarization carry the day. Just as the hot topics of the 1920s-Prohibition and the teaching of evolution -disappeared from the political debates of the 1930s, the favorite wedge issues of the 1990s-abortion, gay rights, and, once again, evolution or creationism--have fallen to the bottom of voter priority lists.

As a result, the initial success of Deed's attack was thwarted as McDonnell turned the electorate's attention to the more pressing question of jobs and the economy. His campaign themes were job creation, sound fiscal governance and bipartisanship-with no emphasis on the social issues that Republicans, like former Senator George Allen, had previously used in the state to define their party. Yet Deeds didn't seem to get the message, manifesting ambivalence about embracing President Obama and his domestic policies throughout the general election campaign. 

Nor did Deeds put forward an alternative plan to provide a positive vision for the economic future of Virginia that would engage young voters and minorities. One self-described "Obama fanatic," who decided not to cast a vote for either candidate this year, put it best when she said, "I wanted to hear more from him [Deeds] about his plan to create jobs and address our taxes." (WSJ, Oct. 31, 2009, Corey Dade, "Virginia's Race Tests Obama's Staying Power). Some polls during the campaign even indicated that between a quarter and a third of African-Americans (a group that is normally 90%+ Democratic) contemplated voting for the GOP candidate.

As American politics enters a new era driven by the civic-orientation of the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) and the rising number of minority voters, each party must rethink the composition of the ideological and demographic coalition on which it will build to ensure future success.   One clear lesson that can be drawn from the results in Virginia is the need for both parties to base all four Ms (message, messenger, media and money) of their campaigns in the years ahead to reflect the new civic era America has entered. Candidates with a demonstrated desire to serve will need to deliver a message focused on greater economic equality and ethnic inclusiveness using all of today's new media in order to win. 

The results in Virginia are likely to provide a good example of how that winning formula can be used not just by Democrats, but also by Republicans who are able to unshackle their campaigns from the ideological straight jacket their party's base is normally so intent on imposing. The outcome will also demonstrate that for Democrats to simply raise the party banner without embracing Barack Obama's formula for victory will not be enough to carry the day. The political equivalent of Darwin's law of "adapt or die," remains the fundamental truth of American politics in this new civic era.

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