Obama's Strange Coattails

Like so much else about this election, Obama’s electoral coattails were unconventional.


Like so much else about this election, Obama’s electoral coattails were unconventional. Normally, a landslide election has reverberations all the way down the ballot. But, despite a big win, Obama didn’t have strong coattails everywhere. Take Virginia where Democrats picked up two traditionally Republican congressional seats—the 2nd and 5th congressional districts. The 5th was a complete surprise, and while it was extremely close, the Republican incumbent should have won easily. In North Carolina, Democrats knocked off Sen. Elizabeth Dole and took all of the statewide constitutional offices. Now, credit must be given to the Democratic candidates in all of these races who ran well. But Obama clearly played a role their relatively large victories. Meanwhile, Democrat Jill Long Thompson lost the gubernatorial race in Indiana. In Iowa there were fewer legislative gains than expected. And Al Franken is still waiting for the outcome in Minnesota. Clearly, these Democrat candidates need to take some responsibility for their lackluster campaigns. But, theoretically, Obama should have picked up some of their slack—or at least made it closer than Thompson’s double-digit loss. So what’s the deal? There are a few potential answers…

1. The obvious answer is drop-off. We all know that many voters in a presidential year only vote at the top of the ticket. With a large number of new voters, young voters and minority voters who were activated only by Obama flocking to the polls, we have to assume many of them walked in and walked out. So, in some states it wasn’t not a Democrat referendum, it was an Obama referendum.2. The less than obvious answer is that states like Virginia, North Carolina and other newly blue states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, really are trending blue. There, it wasn’t just an Obama mandate, it was a ‘lets do things very differently than we’ve been doing them’ mandate and Democrats were the beneficiaries.3. But the really interesting answer requires a closer look at voting behavior in 2008. In states that tend to have an older, less educated population there were far fewer new voters, young voters and minority voters. Iowa and Indiana are two examples. So the traditional electorate acted very, well, traditionally. They looked at each candidate separately and judged them based on their individual message. If they hadn’t met them, read their literature, seen their ads or heard about them from their neighbors then that candidate didn’t get their vote. But in states where these “new voters” were flocking in droves, like Virginia and North Carolina, we saw them push D all the way down the ticket—often regardless of what additional information they had received. That makes the case for more engaged enthusiasm than it does an actual party mandate. So, age and propensity to vote still dictate voter behavior more so than any candidate does.

Is there a lesson here? Yes. Never take voters for granted. Hard core voters will make up their own damn minds. And new voters require four years of a bad administration, a two-year, $700 million campaign and a candidate that makes history.  Candidates running in “coattail” states need to be careful not to over read the Obama victory. And all candidates need to stick to what is still the best way to win a vote – face to face.Liz Chadderdon is president of the Democratic direct mail firm the Chadderdon Group.

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