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Mission Accomplished

Why Democrats lost ground in 2009.

11:00 PM, Nov 11, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Pundits and analysts are scratching their heads to explain Democratic defeats in Virginia and New Jersey last week, particularly examining what caused massive shifts toward the GOP among independent voters in those two states.

Explanations include brilliant Republican campaigns, bumbling Democratic efforts, tea-party conservatives surging, or dispirited liberals just staying home. Some even argue the issue matrix flipped again--last year voters wanted more government intervention; now suddenly they want less.

All of these explanations are plausible. And some even include a few kernels of truth. But there's one you may not have heard. Call it the "mission accomplished" thesis. It goes like this:

Barack Obama's victory was more about a cause than a campaign. It transcended issues such as health care reform, climate change, or embracing a new progressive agenda. It was in part about repudiating eight years of George W. Bush, especially his efforts in Iraq. But it was also about achieving a moral imperative--helping elect the first African-American president who promised to change the language of politics in this country.

Many voters who turned out for this cause in 2008 either didn't show up in 2009 or shifted to Republicans. Their behavior accounts for the massive change in those two states last week. ABC News polling director Gary Langer underscored the magnitude of these shifts among independent voters in his post-election analysis. In New Jersey, governor-elect Chris Christie won among independents by a 30-point margin. One year earlier, Barack Obama won the state's independents 51%-47%. Virginia's governor-elect Bob McDonnell carried independents by 33 points. Again, Barack Obama prevailed in 2008 by 1 point (49%-48%) among this subgroup in the Old Dominion.

Those colossal shifts in both states provided the margins of victory for each Republican. But as election analyst Nate Silver, who writes a blog called Fivethirtyeight.com, points out, saying Democrats lost because independents moved against them really doesn't tell us very much, "It's a lot like saying: the Yankees won the Game 6 last night because they scored more runs than the Phillies. Or: the unemployment rate went up because there were fewer jobs."

He's right. More independents voted Republican than a year earlier, and they helped elect two GOP governors in previously Democratic states. The more significant question is, why? This is where mission accomplished matters, at least in part. Many Obama supporters--particularly younger and independent voters--weren't trying to establish a permanent Democratic majority or construct a new progressive consensus. They were attracted and motivated by a candidate who offered a style and message several generations had not heard before.

And then Obama won--a victory these voters savored.

Yet his 2008 win also contained another conclusion: Mission Accomplished. They could move on. And many did, voting for Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie a year later.

Nowhere is the metaphor of "2008 as mission" more evident than in the new HBO documentary By the People: The Election of Barack Obama. Tracing his path to victory from before the Iowa caucuses to the months that followed in the campaign, the film captures the idealism, excitement, and energy surrounding the Obama candidacy. It's clear, however, the volunteers and those they convinced to support their man were not in this to build the Democratic Party or promote a particular issue agenda. This was a cause; this was symbolism; this was different; this was powerful. And in the end, they won.

Candidate Creigh Deeds in Virginia and Governor Jon Corzine in New Jersey were not causes. Their campaigns included no symbolism. They lacked power and motivation. And in the end, they lost.

But more than just losing, the voting patterns in these states shifted radically in one year, transformations that suggest 2008 was more a crusade driven by personality. 2009 was more about issues like jobs and the economy.

The debates will no doubt continue about what caused the big shift in independents in these two states over the past year. Pundits and campaign analysts will also explore the implications of these electoral transformations for 2010.

One conclusion appears to emerge from last week. Republicans can still compete and win independents when they run competent campaigns, offering practical solutions to everyday problems such as jobs, education, and transportation, which McDonnell and Christie did. But no campaign can beat a cause, which Deeds and Corzine were not.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.