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Lloyd Omdahl, Published November 17 2009

Omdahl: Pundits misread elections

The political pundits had a field week with the recent gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey and congressional elections in New York and California. Depending on their political biases, they each grabbed a different part of the elephant and analyzed it to death.

Most of them offered shallow interpretations of the results. While there may have been local issues in the gubernatorial races, the best explanation of the results was the failure of the unmotivated 2008 President Barack Obama voters to show up at the polls.

That being the case in these elections, Democrats have reason to worry about the 2010 elections because the folks who elected Obama in 2008 will not be there in 2010 either, and Democrats will lose at least five Senate seats and 25 to 30 House seats. Only the well-funded incumbents will be safe, with first-termers going down as they did in 1966 following the Lyndon Johnson landslide in 1964.

It is a historic fact that, more often than not, the party in control of the White House loses congressional seats in the off-year. This was truer 50 years ago, but the availability of large sums of money in recent elections has changed that and incumbents have been able to deflect the off-year impact.

For decades, political scientists looked at this off-year phenomenon and have developed all sorts of theories. It isn’t that difficult to explain. What happened to turnout in the recent gubernatorial elections will happen again in 2010. Without Obama on the ballot, the turnout will have a different demographic hue than the 2008 election.

While current policy controversies have been over-emphasized in light of this historic trend, the 2010 elections will reflect some discontent with Obama’s failure to deliver on all of his campaign promises, and President Obama made more than any president could deliver.

Over-promising is a common feature of modern elections, and for good reason. Candidates for public office, if elected, can’t deliver anything by themselves. They must function in a status quo political system where power is shared widely by branches of government, between the federal government and the states, and with competing interest groups.

However, no one would ever get elected promising only what can be delivered because the expectations of voters in this status quo political system are unreasonable. So in order to get folks to the polls, candidates have to sound as though they can make the sun rise in the west. Nobody would vote for an honest candidate who promised merely that he would try. Campaigns have become games of out-promising the other side.

A good number of veteran Democrats in Congress have taken advantage of the energy and health issues by sponsoring fundraising events to extract millions in campaign contributions from the interest groups involved. With this money, they will be able to survive the off-year tsunami, but this will not be true for their underfunded colleagues. So we should expect to see Democratic losses in 2010, not because of political issues of the day, but because of the change in the demographic makeup of the off-year electorate. That trumps all issues.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail ndmatters@q.com