By Jefferson Flanders

Here are five lessons from the 2010 midterm elections to consider.

1. While the “Hope and Change” brand has been weakened, don’t assume that Barack Hussein Obama can’t recover his “mojo” in time for the 2012 presidential campaign.

The results of the midterm elections can be seen as the low point for Obama’s presidency—along with being called “dude” by comedian Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and mocked for his claim of having “done things that some folks don’t even know about.” Stewart’s pointed response: “Are you planning a surprise party for us, filled with jobs and health care?

Yet all is certainly not lost for the Democrats in 2012: Obama remains personally popular, and there is considerable truth to the argument that the Democrats in Congress paid the price for the faltering economy and 9.6% unemployment.

If the economy improves, it’s very possible that Obama can recreate his winning 2008 coalition of African-Americans, Hispanics, younger Americans, liberal Democrats and centrist independents. The Electoral College map for 2012 will be more problematic for Democrats, however, as voters in the key states of Ohio, Florida, and Virginia appear to be trending red.

2. American voters rejected the extreme, passing on many of the not-ready-for-prime-time Tea Party candidates for the U.S. Senate (Christine O’Donnell, Ken Buck, Joe Miller, and Sharron Angle) and rejecting the legalization of pot in California.

Voters in Maryland, Colorado, Alaska, and Nevada may have been angry about the state of the nation, but they weren’t angry enough to award seriously-flawed Republican candidates U.S. Senate seats.

While the California electorate remained decidedly blue (electing Democrats Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer to the governor’s office and the U.S. Senate, respectively), it voted against Proposition 19, the legalization of marijuana, by a 54%-46% margin. The Associated Press analyzed exit and pre-election polls and concluded that “regardless of race, gender, income or education level” voters rejected the ballot initiative, apparently fearing the social consequences of widespread marijuana usage.

So centrism is not dead, despite what triumphalist conservatives and liberal-left partisans would have us believe.

3. Money alone can’t buy an election—look no further than eBay billionaire Meg Whitman’s failed bid for the California governor’s seat, backed by an avalanche of cash (including some $142 million of her own money) for advertising and campaign consultants.

Whitman’s loss was representative of what happened to most “mogul candidates.” The Washington Post reported that the Center for Responsive Politics calculated “that out of 58 candidates who used $500,000 or more of their money on federal races in 2010, fewer than one in five won.” That suggests that voters didn’t care for well-heeled aspirants for higher office.

Linda McMahon, who ran for governor in Connecticut and spent $46.6 million of her own money, spent the most on a per vote basis. McMahon spent $97 a vote for fewer than half-a-million votes in a losing cause!

One self-financed candidate who did win, businessman Rick Scott in Florida, just barely squeaked by his opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, by less than 70,000 votes out of 5.3 million cast, hardly a rousing endorsement by voters. Scott spent an estimated $78 million of his own wealth.

The irony of candidates advocating cutbacks in government spending vast sums of money was not lost on the electorate. As Arnold Steinberg noted in the Los Angeles Times (“Why Whitman Lost“) about Whitman’s efforts: “It left voters wondering whether a candidate who spent that recklessly on her campaign was capable of being frugal as governor.”

4. There are limits to what public opinion polling can tell us about the outcome—in advance—of an election.

The 2010 midterms again demonstrated that political opinion surveys are accurate only when their turnout models correctly predict who will actually vote. Gallup’s final likely voter survey gave Republicans a 15 point margin on the generic ballot, and the actual popular vote gap was in the 7% range.

Most of the major polling firms got the Nevada U.S. Senate contest wrong, showing Republican challenger Sharron Angle with a narrow lead over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—a race Reid won by 5 percentage points (50%-45%).

Politico looked at what went wrong:

Rasmussen Reports says it miscalculated Reid’s appeal among unaffiliated voters. CNN/Opinion Research thinks the race flipped during the final week. And Mason-Dixon Research concedes it underestimated the Democratic ground game. The three pollsters all showed Angle with a 4-point advantage — 49 percent to 45 percent — in polls released during the final week.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight reviewed data that suggested that pollsters underestimated the support of Nevada Hispanic voters for Reid, while not coming to firm conclusions about whether Latinos were undersampled in their national pre-election surveys.

5. The fiscal health of California and New York may become a 2012 campaign issue—as presidential candidates will have to decide if they will support federal efforts to stave off bankruptcy in either blue state if the economy softens.

2012 presidential candidates may very well face this challenging question: “Will you support a bailout of California (or New York) to avoid a sovereign default and the potential triggering of a world-wide financial crisis?”

Fred Siegel in City Journal (“Indebted and Unrepentant“) envisions a showdown in which Republicans in Congress seek to force California and New York to reduce their spending sharply by cutting federal subsidies.

The coastal giants would no doubt respond by threatening defaults, which could affect the credit standing of the entire country, since many of the bonds are held by foreign investors. The upshot would likely be a high-stakes conflict about free trade, globalization, social class, race, illegal immigration, and public-sector unionism.

This doomsday scenario is unlikely, but not unthinkable. The crucial question: how will the new Democratic governors in New York and California address the looming budgetary issues? And will the economy rebound fast enough to swell state tax revenues in California and New York and close the fiscal gap?

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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