Grant Bosse: Voters confirm just how smart we all are
On the eve of every election, I make the same prediction. No matter who wins, the overwhelming majority of political pundits will claim that the results prove that they were right all along. As we examine the results from Tuesday’s races across the country, pundits will no doubt tell us what it all means for 2014 and 2016. As you consider their advice, consider also how many of these talking heads claim that this week’s elections are evidence of their pre-existing theories.
I’ve long suspected that the pundit class suffers from “epistemic closure,” an extreme form of confirmation bias that renders their beliefs impervious to new evidence. Libertarian writer Julian Sanchez first applied the term to the political right in 2010, and leading liberals like Paul Krugman and Andrew Sullivan have been pushing the theory ever since. I don’t think it’s particularly open-minded to write off your political opponents as too stubborn to realize their own stupidity.
Our fractured media landscape makes it very easy for conservatives and liberals alike to seek out news and commentary from sources that share their beliefs. It’s hard to argue that one side has a monopoly on the echo chamber when Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow are both on the air. It’s important for voters to occasionally venture outside the bubble of political conformity, a service which I hope this column performs for Monitor readers.
Yet those who talk about politics for a living have little incentive to ever change their tune. We’ve seen from the Obamacare debacle how hard it is for elected officials to even acknowledge obvious mistakes, and they have to answer to voters. Why should cable news guests ever admit they were wrong? The good news is that Tuesday’s election results were mixed enough to reinforce almost any narrative.
Former Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe narrowly defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli for Virginina governor, in a race that narrowed remarkably in the final days. This race reminded me of the 2012 Missouri Senate campaign, where two incredibly bad candidates battled to see which was least electable.
Cuccinelli was a Tea Party favorite, and some conservative activists claim that those squishy establishment Republicans sold him out. That’s ridiculous. The Republican National Committee ran the Virginia get-out-the-vote operation, and the Republican Governors Association dropped $8 million on the race. Yes, McAuliffe outspent Cuccinelli, but McAuliffe is also one of the best political fundraisers in American history, and the effectiveness of campaign spending diminishing sharply once you’ve saturated the electorate.
Cuccinelli lost because he was a bad candidate, defined by his combative style and his decision to defend Virginia’s outdated law banning sodomy. We judge politicians not just by where they stand on the issues but also by which issues they prioritize. Cuccinelli’s priorities were out of step with a majority of Virginians, making it easy for McAuliffe to attack him as an extremist.
Cuccinelli’s campaign points to the partial government shutdown in October as a turning point in the race. Just as the public was started to sour on Obamacare, a large swath of Northern Virginia voters were sent home from their federal jobs. The failure to launch of HealthCare.gov and millions of Americans receiving cancellation notices helped narrow the race in the last two weeks, but not enough to overcome the flood of McAuliffe voters from Fairfax and Alexandria.
Some Republicans also complain about Libertarian Robert Sarvis playing spoiler by peeling off Cuccinelli votes, but it’s unlikely that Sarvis swung the election. Exit polls showed his voters turned off about equally about McAuliffe’s big government views and Cuccinelli’s social issues crusade. If Sarvis wasn’t on the ballot, his voters would have been split, or stayed home.
Meanwhile in the Garden State, Gov. Chris Christie crushed Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bouno to win a second term and position himself as a GOP presidential contender in 2016.
Republican moderates will point to the win as proof of the need for more Republican moderates. Christie is pro-life, against gay marriage, pulled his state out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and made the fight with teachers’ unions the top priority of his first term. But he hugged President Obama, so that makes him Nelson Rockefeller.
Some conservatives are also mad that Christie ran up the score by reaching out to black and Hispanic voters, which they claim cost Republican candidates down ballot. This seems a particularly short-sighted lesson to draw. If House and Senate candidates can’t hold onto coattails that broad, they don’t deserve to win.
Predictions for 2013
The 1993 victories of New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani and Virginia Gov. George Allen hinted at a big Republican year in 1994, when Newt Gingrich led an historic takeover of the U.S. House. Democrats held onto gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey in 2005 ahead of a Democratic wave election in 2006. Republicans won them both back in 2009, prefacing huge gains in the 2010 midterms. The 1997 and 2001 elections didn’t predict huge wins for either party the next year.
So what does this mean for 2014? It means candidates on the ballot matter more than anything else. Whether a candidate can connect with voters matters a lot more than that candidate’s views on any issue.
Voters will cast a ballot for someone with whom they disagree, but not for someone they dislike or distrust.
In short, Tuesday’s results just prove what I’ve been saying all along.
(Grant Bosse is editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy, and a senior fellow at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.)