Democrats Seek Warning Signs from Voters

Will Obama voters turn out in the off-year election?

November 2, 2009, 7:45 AM

Nov. 2, 2009— -- President Obama and his team are hoping to avoid going 0 for 3 on Election Day tomorrow.

The most pressing immediate political impact of a shutout may be some tougher-to-woo moderate Democratic votes on health care reform precisely at the same time the White House is looking to get this major legislative priority signed into law and off the president's desk.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has made sure to start downplaying any notion that the results on Tuesday may provide some measurement of the political health of the Obama administration.

"Whatever the results are I don't think they portend a lot in dealing with the future," Gibbs told reporters on Friday.

The latest polls in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York's 23rd congressional district, show that the Democrats may indeed be in for a rough night.

Obviously, taking a beating at the ballot box in three over-interpreted, off-year elections does not suggest that Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell should start measuring the drapes in the speaker and majority leader offices just yet.

But don't let Gibbs' pre-election attempt to downplay the results lead you to believe that the Obama White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill are not eagerly looking for warning signs on Tuesday.

The recent history of these off-year Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races has not been kind to the party holding the White House. And the first midterm election year for a new president has been equally harsh for his party.

Historic trends aside, Republican and Democratic political operatives say they are eager to see how two key voting groups perform on Tuesday.

Independent Voters Key in '09 Vote

Independents continue to be the big prize in American politics. Obama and his fellow Democrats owe much of their 2006 and 2008 victories to the backing of independent voters.

Recent polls in all three high-profile electoral contests show independents moving toward the Republican or Conservative candidates.

"They are fed up with the spending, they are fed up with the taxes, they're tired of seeing businesses run out of the state, and they are tired of seeing one-party rule in Trenton," said former RNC Chairman and Bush adviser Ed Gillespie on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

"What we're seeing now is a reaction to that and we got wind our back for Chris Christie. I think Daggett's numbers will come down between now and Tuesday and they will go to Christie," Gillespie said in his prediction that independents will continue to flow from the third-party candidate in New Jersey, Chris Daggett, to the Republican candidate, Chris Christie.

The Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, Bob McDonnell, had no GOP primary to fight this year and has been actively wooing independent voters in his advertising and direct mail pieces.

The other key voter group to watch will be the Obama surge voters. They came out in droves in 2008 excited by Obama's historic candidacy, but many of them had not voted before 2008 and may have done so more in support of the Obama candidacy than due to any allegiance to the Democratic Party or its policy goals.

Those are the voters President Obama directly addressed at a campaign rally for Gov. Jon Corzine in Newark, N.J., yesterday.

"You know, last year when we had the election, everybody was excited, you know, everything felt fresh and new, and we had a -- we were going to turn the page. And because of you, because of your extraordinary efforts, because you believed, because you had confidence, because you knew that there was this gap between what America should be and what it was, and we could close that gap by working harder and working smarter and having a government that was more transparent and more trustworthy -- because of you, we succeeded at a time when nobody believed we could," Obama said to applause.

"Now, I thank you for that -- it wasn't because of me, it was because of you. But here's the thing. Here's the tough part. Here's the time when it's not as sexy, it's not as flashy. You know, this is when governing comes in, and we've got to make tough choices. And progress isn't always as quick as we want it. And we still got to negotiate with an intransigent opposition," he added.

It is these Obama surge voters the House Democratic campaign chief will be watching on Tuesday as a hint of what may be coming his way in 2010.

Democrats Seek Large Voter Turnout

"Our challenge in the congressional races in the midterm will be to make sure not that we reach presidential levels of turnout – you're never going to get there, but that the turnout on the Democratic side is at least proportionally as high as it was in the presidential election and you have the same mix of Democratic and Obama voters coming out to the polls," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who serves as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"Because if turnout, for example, among young voters was to dip significantly as a proportion of the turnout, or among African American voters was to dip significantly that could cause problems. So what we're going to be looking at is intensity levels, energy levels, which translate into turnout and that will be what we keep our eye most closely on in terms of those races just for some -- any early warning signs on whether Democrats aren't just showing up to the polls," Van Hollen added.

Although the upstate New York congressional district that is home to a competitive special election on Tuesday has been represented by a Republican for more than 100 years, President Obama won it with 52 percent of the vote in 2008.

Republican Dede Scozzafava's decision to end her candidacy, despite her endorsement of Democrat Bill Owens, has likely boosted Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman's chances at hanging onto that seat for the GOP in Congress.

"In the short run there is clear energy here in the small government, anti-government argument," National Journal's Political Director Ron Brownstein said as a guest on the "This Week" roundtable on Sunday.

The White House is likely to spin the results on Tuesday as both not terribly predictive for 2010 and a sign, in NY-23, that the Republican Party is falling hostage to the extreme right-wing of the party.

However, that ignores the fact that the one thing these off-year elections can provide us is a peek into a small sliver of the electorate and what is driving them at this moment in time.

"This can't be completely attributed to a bad economy and to an unpopular incumbent in New Jersey," said Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

"There is something afoot in the land that people are uncomfortable about and one of the issues is spending. And that is probably the biggest issue," she said and, perhaps unwittingly, made her successor Gibbs' job a touch more difficult when she did so.

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