Personality Crisis

There are limits to the politics of personality. That’s one of the lessons we should take from the Nov. 3 off-year elections, which featured sparse turnout — especially of those who had backed President Barack Obama in 2008.

Democrats lost governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, states carried by Obama by solid margins and which had been led by Democrats for the last eight years.

In both cases, state economic and tax issues played huge roles in the results, overriding any of the residual popularity maintained by the president. Turnout also was an issue, with a little less than 1.9 million voters casting ballots in Virginia, down from 3.6 million in 2008 and 2.2 million voters casting ballots in New Jersey, down from 3.7 million. And most of the drop off was in Obama voters — African Americans and other minorities and those under 30.

The elections, essentially, demonstrated the limits to a movement built on the back of a single person. Far too many progressives were willing to ride Obama’s personality, failing to understand that Obama’s impact was likely to be limited when he was not on the ballot.

Consider the numbers from this analysis of exit polling: In Virginia, where conservative Bob McDonnell defeated moderate Creigh Deeds by 59%-41%, the exit polls showed 48% approved of the job the president is doing, with 24% saying they voted for the Republican to show opposition to the president; 85% of voters said they were worried about the economy, with 53% saying they were very worried.

“Nearly half, 47%, called the economy the single top issue in their vote, far and away No. 1, as noted those economy voters favored McDonnell over Deeds by a 15-point margin, 57-42 percent,” ABC reported.

The Democrat, Creigh Deeds, appeared to be his own worst enemy, as well, failing to define himself, running away from the national party and offering little to calm voters’ fears about the future. Deeds, ABC said, “fell short in connecting with Virginia voters,” half of whom said he failed to share their values and almost half of whom said he was too liberal.

Given these numbers, it is pretty clear why the Virginia race was never really in doubt.

New Jersey, however, was another story. The incumbent governor, Jon Corzine, was personally unpopular, with approval ratings mired in the 30s for much of the last two years. His opponents — Republican former US Attorney Chris Christie and independent Chris Daggett - also had high negative ratings in what was considered a rather rough-and-tumble election, even by New Jersey standards, with the outcome still in doubt on election day.

Christie won with 49% of the vote in a state where Obama, who made several trips to the state, remains popular and the Democrats lost just one seat in the Assembly, where they now hold a 48-32 majority. Just one in five voters cast their ballot for Christie as a protest vote against Obama.

Most, however, were casting votes against Jon Corzine and the economy. ABC found that 42% of Christie’s supporters “said they’d cast their ballot more against his opponents than for him” — which makes sense given the anger over property taxes in the state and the (unfair) blame placed on the incumbent (“tax-focused voters” backed Christie 67-25, ABC found). ABC found that “voters who were most worried about the economy backed” Christie 61-34, though Corzine was the choice of voters who listed the economy as the top issue, 58-36.

The numbers support David Sirota’s argument that we are experiencing a churning of the electorate, that the economy has people “looking at change,” as he told David Brancaccio on PBS Now.

“I think what we’re seeing is that a recession and a bad economy means change,” he says. “It doesn’t mean change for the Democrats. It doesn’t mean change for the Republicans. It means constant change until things feel or get a little bit better.”

But they also point to the need for progressives to do more than put their trust in presidential candidates. Voting for Barack Obama has not built a progressive movement, anymore than voting for Ralph Nader created a third-party movement or voting for Ronald Reagan created the conservative movement.

Movements must be built from the ground up, their energy becoming contagious across the culture, creating momentum for change and forcing elected officials to listen or get out of the way.

Personal popularity may be enough at the polls, but it has nothing to do with the work that has to be done.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in central New Jersey. E-mail:

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2009

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