Thursday, November 05, 2009

Off-year election afterthoughts

Before we've all forgotten there was a wacky contest on Tuesday somewhere in the far northern reaches of New York State, I want to get in a few more thoughts. Until I read the following, I didn't have any very authentic picture of what might be going on in New York's 23rd Congressional District. But thanks to Booman who pointed to this from a local newspaper, I think I now have more notion of what may have given Democrat Bill Owens an unexpected victory over wingnut Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman.

Owens won in Hoffman's home Essex County, where Republicans have a substantial voter registration advantage, with 3,718 votes compared to 3,175 for Hoffman and 432 for Scozzafava. Keene town Councilman Paul Martin couldn't vote in the Hoffman-Owens race because, like Hoffman, he lives in the neighboring 20th District, but he found Owens' taking of Hoffman's home county interesting.

"This used to be a tremendous conservative center, this whole North Country area," Martin said. "You couldn't find a Democrat in this whole area. ... And of course, all that's changed. ... It's kind of like what Vermont went through.

"I think there are a lot of thinking people up here, and maybe they figured it was time for a change somewhere along the line."

Adirondack Daily Enterprise

That had echoes for me. You see, I worked politically in Vermont in 1970 before Vermont "went through" a political sea change. The state had lost its woolen mills (and their jobs) to the South; agriculture had always been marginal on granite hillsides; all the state seemed to have were gritty people, beautiful hills, and fall foliage. Politically, the state was "conservative" in a way that really meant depressed and anxious. Back then, Democrats were rare creatures in Vermont.

Since then, Vermont has changed enormously. It's still struggling economically, but, somehow combining out of state immigrants attracted by its beauty, a vigorous year-round tourist industry, and some knowledge work, it has pulled itself together. Now it is the most libertarian/liberal of the New England states, fielding a Socialist Senator (Bernie Sanders) and giving President Obama the highest percentage of his vote from white males of any state in the country (map here).

I have to wonder -- are parts of far northern New York going the way of nearby Vermont? Like Vermont, the area doesn't have an agricultural future; there's a limit to living on sugar maple tapping. And much of it (the bits by Lake Champlain and the St. Laurence river) is beautiful, attracting tourists and newcomers fleeing cities. It wouldn't be entirely shocking if the kind of transition that happened in Vermont is happening here -- and this unexpected election with all its noisy outsider interlopers just both covered and revealed a local process that was well underway.

In any case, if, as expected, New York State loses a Congressional district after the 2010 census, this particular district shape is not likely to endure much longer.

The mainstream media explanation of what happened Tuesday (in New Jersey and Virginia) seems to be that independents voted for Republicans. Nate Silver at 538 punctures this meme as an explanation. Since Democrats and Republicans almost always vote as Democrats and Republicans, independents always deliver the margin of victory to one side or the other. So this "explanation" is not very meaningful. Moreover, the label "independent" covers voters who do not have a party affiliation for very different, sometimes conflicting reasons. I like Silver's list of the kinds of independents and pass it on here:

1) People who are mainline Democrats or Republicans for all intents and purposes, but who reject the formality of being labeled as such;
2) People who have a mix of conservative and liberal views that don’t fit neatly onto the one-dimensional political spectrum, such as libertarians;
3) People to the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum, who consider the Democratic and Republican parties to be equally contemptible;
4) People who are extremely disengaged from politics and who may not have fully-formed political views;
5) True-blue moderates;
6) Members of organized third parties.

The number of divergent sorts of "independents" always makes campaign outreach to the margin-makers a difficult task.


Darlene said...

Interesting analysis of what makes a person register as an Independent. I am always tempted to, but I think I have more clout if I stay with one of the major parties. I am a Democrat.

Odd that I always had the misconception that the New England states were liberal. I guess that impression came from the Kennedy's.

libhom said...

I'm sure that all the independents who voted GOP this time voted GOP in 2009. The same goes for the Democrats.

The difference was that the Democrats demoralized Democratic leaning voters by governing too much like Goppers. Too many liberal independents didn't bother to vote.

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