Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Politics: Rational Decisions

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Much has been made in the media of the substantial gains made by the Republican Party in yesterday's elections in the United States, with that party taking control of the House of Representatives by a comfortable margin, gaining a clear majority of governorships, and gaining six seats in the Senate (with two races technically uncalled). Yet, while there was a clear mood of discontent and desire for change, there also seemed in the results to be a tremendous reminder that all politics is local, as looking at most races revealed a lot of rational decisions by voters.

If the best one-sentence summary of the mood of the electorate was "we want government to work better," that led to a hard choice when the options were the party in power and the party that was in power until two years ago. When other choices were available, the voters often took them seriously. Lincoln Chafee, who has been heavily critical of the Republican party of which he once was a member as well as the Democratic Party, ran as an independent and won the governorship of Rhode Island. Chafee, once described as a moderate Republican, was supposed to be symbolic of the changes in that party as it seemed he had no future--yet voters decided he was actually the best person to run his home state. His political career was hardly over.

Yet, most states did not have a viable third-party, new-thinking alternative with the name recognition of Chafee. (Notably, Maine's Eliot Cutler lacked only name recognition and almost defeated Republican Paul LePage, but came up short.) In those cases, when it came down to a Democrat and Republican, it often came down to local issues and candidate quality, which is why Connecticut went all-Democratic at the Federal level, and Pennsylvania substantially Republican.

If there was a long-standing Democratic incumbent (like Representatives James Oberstar and John Spratt or Senator Russ Feingold), that person tended to be quite vulnerable to the discontent of the voters. But, if the alternative were perceived as somewhat fringe (such as Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, or Tom Tancredo) or simply not politically experienced enough (Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and arguably even Dino Rossi), then the incumbent Democrat tended to be chosen anyway.

Much has been made of the rise of the TEA parties, but in the Senate, there were really only two TEA party victories, and neither of those may have had much to do with the TEA parties per se. Both Marco Rubio in Florida and Rand Paul in Kentucky are gifted politicians, whatever one thinks of their policy ideas, and would have been strong candidates in any year. Compare that with O'Donnell and Angle, who appear to have cost the Republicans easy-to-win seats, and the fact that Lisa Murkowski appears to have won a write-in campaign over the Sarah Palin-endorsed Republican nominee Joe Miller in Alaska, and it's not at all clear that the TEA parties made a big difference in general elections.

Instead, what I see is a country of discontented voters looking for fresh ideas that were moderate and productive in nature, and when they couldn't find that, trying to make a rational choice between the two main parties. In a year in which so much outside money was spent on the election, that's not a bad thing to observe.

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