The fact that Tuesday's political climate looked so different from last November's should discourage anyone from extrapolating a great deal from this week's results about the likely electoral outcome in 2010, much less in 2012. Politics, like life, rarely stands still.
But every election is a snapshot; it may not forecast the future, but it does capture the country's mood at that moment. And Tuesday's results spotlighted several trends that will threaten Democrats next November if they can't reverse, or at least mitigate, them by then.
One is the danger of demobilization. The modern Democratic coalition rests on three pillars: nonwhites, young people, and college-educated whites. Those groups are growing as a share of society, but the first two "are unreliable voters in elections that don't engage them," notes veteran Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.
Tuesday's was one of those elections. In the gubernatorial victories by Republicans Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, the share of the vote cast by people under 30 dropped by about half from 2008, according to exit polls. In New Jersey, the minority vote share remained unchanged from 2008, but in Virginia it fell by more than a quarter. Older voters, who have generally resisted President Obama, grew more prominent. And in both states, Republicans increased as a portion of the electorate, while Democrats declined. The long-term demographic trends should still work to Obama's favor in 2012, but the 2009 results point toward an intensity gap that could benefit Republicans next year. "The people who are discontented are much more energized," says former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis.
The other immediate headline from Tuesday was the Democratic decline among independents, who backed the Democratic Party in its 2006 and 2008 sweeps. Obama won about half of independents in both Virginia and New Jersey; this year, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Creigh Deeds and Jon Corzine each carried only about one-third of them.
But the Democratic decline among independents should really be seen as part of the party's dismal overall showing among whites. Both Deeds and Corzine retained commanding support among minority voters. But each man won only about one-third of whites, much less than Obama in those states. Republicans compounded their advantage among white demographic groups where they are already strong: Deeds and Corzine each won fewer than three in 10 whites without a college education, and just one-third of white seniors. But the Republicans also gained among whites who had recently resisted them: Both Corzine (narrowly) and Deeds (lopsidedly) lost whites under 30. Both finished with less than 30 percent among white independents. And both attracted less than 40 percent of college-educated whites. All of these results parallel those in national polls showing most whites moving toward a Ross Perot-like skepticism about Washington, even as minorities express more comfort with an enlarged federal role. That divergence looms as an ominously destabilizing force.
Against such headwinds, Democrats on Tuesday faltered not only in communities already leaning Republican but also in the white-collar suburbs that now anchor their congressional and presidential majorities. Since 2005, Democrats have dominated well-educated and diverse Northern Virginia counties, such as Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William; McDonnell carried all three. Democrats likewise declined in New Jersey's demographically similar Bergen and Middlesex counties, each a party stronghold for two decades.
None of this guarantees Democrats will lose these voters in 2010, but it does suggest they need to mend fences. Economic recovery, of course, would help them everywhere. Like most Republicans, Davis says that Tuesday's results should warn Democrats against further expanding government with sweeping initiatives, such as health care reform. Greenberg, by contrast, says that the outcome shows the urgency of producing tangible benefits, like health insurance reform, for middle-class voters stewing over government programs they believe have benefited only the powerful, such as the financial bailout. "They need to deliver for the middle class," he says.
The election presented Republicans with their own challenges: The improbable Democratic victory in a long-Republican upstate New York congressional district demonstrated both the power and limits of the conservative backlash against Obama. With even an incumbent as formidable and well-funded as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg suffering a near-death experience on Tuesday, this week's biggest lesson may be that with trust in institutions collapsing, and anxiety about the economy spiking, everyone in public life today is standing on unstable ground.
This article appears in the November 7, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.