Consider these six numbers: 62, 53, 54, 60, 60, 53.
Those numbers are the percentage of voters who supported Barack Obama last year in Westchester and Nassau Counties in New York, Bergen and Middlesex Counties in New Jersey, Fairfax County in Virginia, and Bucks County in Pennsylvania, respectively.
Now, here are the percentages of the vote that the top-of-the-ticket Democratic candidates got in each of those counties this year: 43, 48, 48, 44, 49, 45.
After Election Day 2009, Democrats attempted to minimize the ramifications of their losses by contending they were not a reflection on Obama or on the party’s image as a whole; they had the misfortune of running uniquely flawed candidates in Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey and gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds in Virginia — as well as, apparently, uniquely flawed candidates in the lieutenant governor’s race, the attorney general’s race, and six state-delegate races.
But as the stack of 2009’s defeated Democrats piles up to include Westchester county executive Andrew Spano, Nassau county executive Tom Suozzi (probably), and state supreme court nominee Jack Panella in Pennsylvania, with a roughly proportional slide in the Democrats’ share of the vote, perhaps that party’s problems go well beyond the flaws of any individual candidate. Perhaps the suburbs of the northeast and Mid-Atlantic states are looking at the party and concluding, to adapt a recurring phrase from Obama’s days as a candidate, “This is not the Democratic party I knew.”
After 2008, the declarations were blunt: Obama won 50 percent of suburban voters, the most by a Democrat since exit polling began in 1972. Democrats benefited from increased turnout among young voters and African-Americans, but the suburban shift from Kerry’s modest 47 percent was the real sign that they were winning over skeptics.
Days before last year’s presidential election, the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University released an extensive poll, focusing on suburban voters, with a clear conclusion: “Against a backdrop of growing economic pain in suburbia, Barack Obama has surged past John McCain among suburban ‘swing’ voters who usually decide national elections,” wrote Lawrence C. Levy, the group’s executive director. With housing values plummeting, layoffs looming, and 401(k)s going down in flames, the nation’s worried suburbanites concluded that Barack Obama and the Democrats were the ones who could protect them in an increasingly volatile, frightening world.
All of this suburban success was a bit ironic for a candidate who declared as a younger man: “I’m not interested in the suburbs, the suburbs bore me,” and who famously characterized the “clinging” habits of small-town voters.
Almost a year later, the NCSS survey finds a dramatically different landscape: “After more than eight months in office, Obama is now fighting to maintain positive margins in the suburbs. . . . In the suburbs, opinion is split: 47 percent positive and 40 percent negative. One possible reason for Obama’s weakened rating is the increasing perception that the federal government’s actions in response to the economic crisis have hurt suburban families’ finances. Now, 31 percent of suburbanites say the government policies have hurt their finances, just about doubling from the Hofstra poll in October 2008. Forty-five percent say the policies will make no difference, down from 54 percent a year earlier. And one in five (19 percent) say the government policies will improve their family finances.” The survey also found an intense racial divide: Among African-American suburbanites, Obama’s job rating stands at 91 percent positive to 2 percent negative. For Hispanic suburbanites, it is 66 percent positive to 16 percent negative.
What is crystallizing in the northeast is voters’ incredulity that government at every level should be demanding more while delivering less at a time when people feel strapped and anxious about their futures. Almost all voters feel an ever-sharper pinch from the economic downturn, but they look at government, from their county seat to Washington, and find little or no sign of frugality or careful budgeting. There was also a time when conventional wisdom dictated that a pro-life Republican could not win a race in the northeast. Here are three candidates who suggest a lot of what we know about politics in the northeast is wrong:
Republican challenger Ed Mangano is, as of this writing, not quite the next Nassau county executive. But he leads Tom Suozzi by 353 votes after a weekend of absentee and affidavit ballot counting, a process of counting that is expected to extend past the Thanksgiving holiday.
A county-executive race doesn’t dominate the headlines the way a presidential race does, but Suozzi entered this race the heavy favorite. In a county with more registered Democrats than Republicans, in a state where the GOP is supposed to be dead, an incumbent with a huge fundraising advantage ought to be able to win in his sleep. Perhaps that is a good way of describing what Suozzi attempted; he finished the race with perhaps $2 million in his campaign war chest unspent.
Mangano’s message was nothing fancy; he was a local who pledged to eliminate government waste. As in New Jersey, locals are furious about high property taxes, and in a slumping economy (the local unemployment rate in October was 7.2 percent, compared to 5 percent a year earlier) the general mood was frustration that government was taking more but delivering less. Suozzi had spent earlier years criticizing state government and running a “fix Albany” campaign (part of his failed bid for governor in 2006); Mangano jabbed that Suozzi was “so busy trying to fix Albany, he forgot about Nassau County.”
In the end, Republicans were more motivated to vote than Democrats were; Newsday found turnout in traditional GOP areas was 32 percent, while it was 22 percent in traditionally Democratic neighborhoods.
Rob Astorino is supposed to be the kind of Republican candidate who can’t win in the northeast anymore. He ran a fairly explicit campaign emphasizing fiscal conservatism, depicting the county’s management as wasteful, bureaucratic, inefficient, corrupt, and out of touch. He hammered his rival, telling voters that the incumbent county executive, Andy Spano, “raised your taxes almost 60 percent in the last seven years alone. Mr. Spano has ballooned the annual budget by $1 billion in the past 12 years, from $800 million to $1.8 billion per year. He spends more than 87 nations do, and you pay for it.” Intriguingly, while the pro-life Astorino didn’t put his faith or social views front and center, his conservative bona fides are impeccable: He is a radio host and program director for the Catholic Channel on Sirius Satellite Radio and hosts a Thursday-night program with Cardinal Edward Egan, the former archbishop of New York.
Astorino shellacked the three-term Democrat, 57 percent to 43 percent, in a county where Democrats have nearly a 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration. This is a county where Al Gore and John Kerry carried 58 percent of the vote, the county Bill and Hillary Clinton call home. It may be a bit self-serving, but Spano contends that his defeat reflects voters’ anger at Democrats at the state and national level. “It has nothing to do with me, as far as I’m concerned,” he told the New York Times. “They’re mad at Albany, and Washington.”
Pennsylvania’s supreme court race pitting Republican Joan Orie Melvin against Democrat Jack Panella didn’t attract much national attention; while there was plenty of television advertising, it had two relatively unknown candidates, and the dominant issues of Washington were largely non-factors. The Democrat began with significant advantages: The state currently has 1.2 million more registered Democrats than Republicans, and Panella’s campaign raised $2.35 million, outdoing Melvin’s by almost 3-1, according to statistics compiled by an advocacy group, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
Instead, Melvin won 53 percent to 46 percent, and won every suburban county around Philadelphia except Montgomery, which the Democrat carried by 1.4 percent. While the Democrat Panella garnered 70 percent of the vote in Philadelphia, traditionally the engine that drives Democratic wins in statewide races, the city had a miserable turnout of 12 percent.
In a way, the result in this race between two relatively unknown candidates, focusing on non-Washington topics such as judicial temperament and ethics, further reinforces the sense of Democratic malaise; the D next to Panella’s name should have been worth more in a state that Obama carried 54 percent to 44 percent.
While these six counties have their differences, they are all classically suburban and among the wealthiest in the nation. There are 3,141 counties in the United States; ranked by median household income, Nassau ranks 12th highest nationally, Westchester ranks 47th, Bucks ranks 76th. Of the other counties mentioned earlier, Fairfax County ranks 2nd; Bergen ranks 28th, Middlesex ranks 68th. A wholesale rejection in the varied races of 2009 suggests that voters in these places are changing what they think when they hear the word “Democrat.” A year ago, it represented change from a wearying and disappointing Bush presidency; today it represents runaway spending, an arrogant dismissal of cries of over-taxation, and a fundamental disconnect from the daily life and problems of constituents.
After the 2008 election, Robert Lang, a demographer at Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute in Alexandria, scoffed to the Washington Post, “The Obama campaign clearly understands where the battleground of this election was. Do [the Republicans] have the basic math skills to sit with an Excel spreadsheet and figure out where the growth is, or are they out of their minds?”
Apparently, they do.
– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.