The U.S. Senate special election in Massachusetts on January 19th was a stunning rebuke of the national Democratic agenda by independent voters in a state that has voted Democratic in 11 of the last 13 presidential elections. Scott Brown, a Republican state senator, defeated state Attorney General Martha Coakley, 52% to 47%. The Senate seat, held by Democratic brothers John F. Kennedy and Edward “Ted” Kennedy for most of the past 57 years, was last held by a Republican in 1953. John F. Kennedy’s 1952 victory over incumbent Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. was then a shocking outcome, as an Irish Catholic defeated a scion of one of the greatest political dynasties in New England history.
Massachusetts last elected a Republican senator, Edward Brooke (the first of just two African-American U.S. senators elected in the 20th century), in 1972. Unlike Brown, who is a conservative Republican, Senator Brooke was a moderate. Fifteen years have passed since Massachusetts elected any Republican to the U.S. Congress; since Reps. Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen were defeated in 1996, no Republican has won any of the Bay State's ten congressional districts. (However, a series of Republican governors, including William Weld and Mitt Romney, served from 1991 to 2007.)
There were strong warning signs of independents’ disaffection with the national Democratic message in California’s 10th Congressional District special election in November 2009, yet most political observers ignored or overlooked them. First, the city of Dixon (Solano County), a presidential bellwether, favored the Republican candidate by an astonishing 15 percentage points. Second, a massive pro-Republican “get out the vote” effort materialized on election day – resulting a “win” by the Republican candidate at polling places (overturned by the Democratic candidate’s votes in the much larger vote-by-mail).
In the 2009 special CD-10 election, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Garamendi soundly defeated conservative Republican David Harmer, 52.8% to 42.8%, yet like an iceberg, much lurked beneath the surface. In May 2009, voter registration in CD-10 was 47% Democrats, 29% Republicans and 20% Decline to State (Independent). Clearly, David Harmer attracted many votes outside of his party.
Most independents apparently favored Harmer. In the October 2009 Survey USA/KPIX poll, independent voters comprised 16 percent of the “likely and actual voters.” They favored Harmer over Garamendi, 42% to 35% (18% of independent voters said that they voted for one of the three third-party candidates). Harmer attracted 10 percent of Obama voters; Garamendi won 5 percent of McCain voters.
California CD-10 Special Election - Overlooked Factor No. 1: The Dixon Phenomenon
The biggest and most overlooked warning sign for national Democrats in the 2009 California CD-10 special election came from the city of Dixon in Solano County, at the northern end of the district. Dixon is known to most northern Californians as a city (or dismissively as a “cow town”) in the Interstate 80 corridor between Vacaville and Davis. Dixon is technically in the nine-county Bay Area, but it behaves politically more like a middle-of-the-road Central Valley community (akin to Modesto, Fresno, Manteca and Tracy). Political observers know Dixon as one of California’s best “bellwether” cities – as Dixon goes, so goes the nation.
Dixonians have a remarkable ability to select the winner of a presidential election, closely mirroring the national margin of victory. According to CalPolitical’s analysis of voting returns from all California cities for all presidential elections from 1964 to 2008, Dixon is the sixth-best presidential bellwether in the Golden State (behind Blythe, Rio Vista, Vacaville, Barstow and Wasco).
Dixon supported the electoral vote winner in 11 of the past 12 presidential elections, with the exception of 1976 when it backed President Gerald Ford over challenger Jimmy Carter. In 2008, it favored Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain, 53.0% to 45.0%, very close to the national margin of 53.1% to 45.8%. Four years earlier, Dixon was more strongly Republican than the nation, favoring Republican George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry, 54.5% to 44.6% (compared to the national margin of 51.0% to 48.5%).
In the CD-10 special election in November 2009, Dixon favored Republican Harmer over Democrat Garamendi by 54% to 39%, an astonishing 15 percentage point landslide for the Republican. Some form of political earthquake apparently happened in Dixon (and, by proxy, the nation) between November 2008 and November 2009, yet no one apparently took notice until the January 2010 Massachusetts Senate election.
When Dixon speaks like this, political pundits should be listening. They should be descending upon the community, engaging with the man- and woman-on-the-street and asking a series “why?” questions. Dixon and neighboring Vacaville (the Golden State’s third-best presidential bellwether) should be regarded by political elites as more than a mere “pit stop” on the freeway between the Bay Area and Sacramento. The same goes for nearby Rio Vista (second-best presidential bellwether). (Perhaps to muffle their unpredictable political voice, political mapmakers “gerrymandered” the neighboring communities of Vacaville, Dixon and Rio Vista into three congressional districts.)
The last time that a Republican presidential nominee defeated a Democratic presidential nominee by such a wide margin in Dixon was 22 percentage points in the Ronald Reagan re-election landslide of 1984 (61.3% for Republican Reagan to 38.7% for Democrat Walter Mondale). If Dixon is on a path to favor the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 by the same margin that it favored the Republican congressional candidate in 2009, then President Obama would suffer one of the worst defeats in modern American history.
Dixon’s ability to maintain its presidential bellwether status is especially remarkable given the community’s rapid population growth and demographic changes over the past half century. Its population was a mere 2,970 in 1960 compared to more than 17,000 today.
California CD-10 Special Election - Overlooked Factor No. 2: Massive Republican Get Out the Vote Campaign
The Republican “get out the vote” effort on November 3, 2009 in California’s 10th Congressional District was remarkably effective. Some pundits dismissed the Republican’s strong showing as a “low-turnout special election fluke,” but it is clear that Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) were much more energized than Democrats on election day itself.
Although Democrat John Garamendi won the overall vote (52.8%-42.8%), Republican David Harmer defeated Garamendi in the polling place vote by three percentage points (49.7% Harmer to 46.7% Garamendi). In Alameda County (mostly Livermore), Garamendi won the vote-by-mail by 400 ballots, but lost the county due to Harmer’s 1,500 margin in the polling place vote.
Fortunately for Garamendi, polling place ballots accounted for just 31 percent of the 137,786 votes cast for the five major candidates. Just under 69 percent of ballots were cast as absentees/vote-by-mail. Garamendi handily defeated Harmer among absentees/vote-by-mail, 55.6% Garamendi to 39.7% Harmer.
Harmer won the Livermore area by a wide margin, 52.5% to 44.5%. Harmer was the first Republican federal candidate to win Livermore since George W. Bush defeated Al Gore there in 2000 (by just 44 ballots, 49.1% Bush to 48.9% Gore); in 2000 Livermore was the third-best presidential bellwether city in California (behind Barstow and Blythe). Livermore had trended Democratic during the 2000s, backing John Kerry over Bush by 0.9 percentage points in 2004 (the first time that Livermore had voted for a losing Democratic presidential nominee in more than 40 years) and Obama over McCain by 16 percentage points in 2008 (57.3% Obama vs. 40.9% McCain). Livermore last voted for a Republican for the U.S. House in 1996, as incumbent Rep. Bill Baker (R) defeated Democratic challenger Ellen Tauscher there, 50.7% to 44.1% (Tauscher won the district overall, due entirely to her margin in the Democrat-vote rich Castro Valley and Ashland areas).
Most journalists missed the story of the election day “surge” by Republicans and allied independents in CD-10. Polling place returns did not come in until late on election night, after the filing deadlines for many political reporters.
The 2009 California 10th Congressional District election (especially the Dixon and Livermore returns) and the 2010 Massachusetts U.S. Senate special election suggest a trend that should worry national Democrats and hearten national Republicans – independents, an important part of the Obama coalition in 2008, appear to be disenchanted presently with the national Democratic agenda. Republicans and their transitory independent supporters simply have a greater “urge to win” and therefore a greater urge to turn out to vote than Democrats. If current trends continue, this bodes poorly for Democrats across the nation in November 2010.
National Democrats Need to Resolve the Health Care Debate, Then "Turn the Page"
If the national Democrats want to avoid this fate, they need to do a much better job engaging with citizens across the country, especially independent voters. Many legislators, both Republican and Democratic, adamently refuse to communicate directly with the constituents that they ostensibly represent. Some have held no town hall meetings of any form (in person or telephonically) in several years, if ever. Some members of Congress today are in office simply because they are "members of Congress;" they are entrenched incumbents in single-party districts who believe that they are never going to leave office involuntarily. In the long term, voters will not tolerate this type of arrogance and smug detachment.
First, Democrats need to explain precisely why the health care system needs to be reformed and how their proposed reforms will benefit a wide cross-section of Americans. Democrats need to inform their constituents that the status quo, health care by for-profit "big insurance, is unacceptable; many citizens mistakenly think that they now have coverage until they learn in their hour of need that they do not. The Democrats also need to demonstrate to voters that they will experience immediate benefits from any health care reform; a mis-perception persists that no reform of substance will take effect until 2013 or 2014. They also need to explain how health care reform is relevant at a time when one in ten Americans is unemployed and one in six is either unemployed or underemployed.
Second, Democrats need to "turn the page" as rapidly as possible from the thicket of the health care policy debate to the "jobs and economy" issue, which has much greater relevance to the typical voter. When people do not have jobs in order to finance their short-term sustenance, their food and shelter on a week-to-week basis, they really could care less about health care, unless or until they become seriously ill.
Third, most Americans are confused by the ups and downs of the financial services industry in the past eighteen months. The industry received a series of "bailouts," and now seems to have recovered, if stock market indexes and employee bonuses are any indication. Meanwhile, the average citizen is still coping with unemployment, government service cuts (from school closures to park shut-downs) and other "lagging indicators."
Many people had been clamoring throughout 2009 for public explanations and public "mea culpas" from the "titans of industry" behind the crisis, yet only now in 2010 is the public accountability process beginning through the Angelides Commission. This "reality TV" series should have been programmed months ago, in summer 2009, in a setting with appropriate historical gravitas, such as the Senate Caucus Room, the site of the 1970s Ervin Watergate inquiry and the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings, preempting soap operas on network daytime television. It could have had all the drama and import of the Pecora Commission hearings of the 1930s, which exposed for posterity the shenanigans of 1920s Wall Street.
Hearing dates in mid-2009 would have allowed a bipartisan team of Democratic and Republican legislators to devote early 2010 to crafting and passing legislation to address legal problems exposed in the hearings. Today many Americans are still as baffled as they were in late 2008 as to how and why this crisis at the very root of the "Great Recession" began; if "John/Jane Q. Public" does not understand the problem, then he or she certainly will not understand any solution proposed by Congress -- therefore, the status quo dominated by the Wall Street financial interests will go on.