Obama Loyalty May Not Be Transferable

November 14th, 2009

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Originally published in National Journal.

It is difficult to get Democrats to vote if neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush is on the ballot. That’s one of the lessons of the 2009 elections.

Last year, Obama carried Virginia with 53 percent of the vote. This year, only 43 percent of Virginia voters said they had voted for him for president, according to the Edison Research exit poll. A lot of Obama Democrats didn’t bother to show up this time.

Last year, 20 percent of Virginia voters were African-American. This year, just 16 percent were. Turnout among voters under age 30 fell by more than half, from 21 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2009. Likewise in New Jersey, young adults’ share of the vote declined from 17 percent in 2008 to 9 percent in 2009.

The Obama movement believes more in the president himself than in a progressive ideology.

Here’s the good news for Democrats: The 2009 gubernatorial elections were not a referendum on President Obama. Solid majorities of voters — 56 percent in Virginia, 60 percent in New Jersey — said that Obama was not a factor in their vote for governor. In New Jersey, 57 percent of the voters said they approved of the way Obama was doing his job. But only 45 percent voted to re-elect Democrat Jon Corzine. In Virginia, Obama’s approval rating was 48 percent, but only 41 percent voted for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds.

Here’s the bad news for Democrats: The elections were a referendum on the economy. In both Virginia and New Jersey, the more worried voters were about the direction of the nation’s economy, the more likely they were to vote Republican. That’s the reverse of 2008, when the economy helped Democrats. Democrats control both the White House and Congress, and the governors in New Jersey and Virginia were Democrats. For better or worse, the economy is becoming the Democrats’ issue. Right now, it’s for worse.

Do results in two states predict what is likely to happen in the midterm election next year? No, because so much could be different next year. The 2009 results show what would have happened if the midterm election had been this year: significant Democratic losses. The outcome is a warning to Democrats. If the economy doesn’t show signs of turning around in the next year, they are in real danger — just as Republicans were in the first two years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when the unemployment rate increased from 7.2 percent to 10.8 percent.

Back then, Republicans lost 26 House seats but no Senate seats in the 1982 midterm. The losses might have been a lot worse for the GOP had Reagan not been able to rally his party with a call to “stay the course.” Millions of Americans stayed with Reagan and his party even though Reaganomics had never worked. They believed in the course.

Will Obama be able to rally voters to “stay the course” if things are still bad in 2010? Reagan led a political movement. That’s bigger than a campaign. A campaign is something people support. A movement is something people believe in and belong to.

Obama is the first president since Reagan to lead a political movement, but there may be an important difference. The one that Reagan led was bound by a common conservative ideology and a powerful anti-government agenda. Reagan is gone, but the conservative movement lives on.

Obama’s movement is less ideological, even though “tea party” activists accuse Obama of having an ideological agenda to empower Big Government. The Obama movement believes more in the president himself than in a progressive ideology. The 2009 elections suggest that it may be hard to transfer that personal loyalty to other Democrats.

Look at what has happened to the conservative movement, though. In New York’s special congressional election, conservative activists forced the Republican Party candidate out of the race and inadvertently delivered the district to the Democrats — for the first time in more than 100 years. Some conservatives consider that a victory. “The GOP now must recognize it will either lose without conservatives or will win with conservatives,” blogger Erick Erickson wrote.

The lesson of 2009 is that a party needs an ideological base that it can rely on when times are tough, but it can’t allow the ideological base to take over the party.