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Morning Jay: Electoral Review Part 2, The Northeast

6:30 AM, Nov 12, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Today we continue our post-election review with an examination of the Northeast. Let’s start with a look at the region-wide House map. Here are the results at the end of 2008.

Now, here are the results after last week.

There are two qualities that jump out at me. First, there was very little movement in the New England states, where the Democrats generally held the line. This is also true for the gubernatorial races, where the GOP managed but one victory (in Maine). Second, there was quite a bit of movement in the Mid-Atlantic states, or at least New York and Pennsylvania.

The goal of this write-up will be to account for these two phenomena. Let’s start with New England.

Disappointing, to say the least. The GOP only picked up two seats in New England, despite the fact that there were about eight Democratic-held seats that were in genuine contention.

Interestingly enough, there was a shift in the House vote in New England this year. The problem was, it wasn’t big enough.

The median shift between 2008 and 2010 was 14 points. That’s not too bad for the Republicans, but the trouble was that the Democrats were already at 71 percent to begin with! 

That 71 percent is actually an inflated number, as it depends on the fact that 6 of the 10 Massachusetts congressional districts did not have Republican challengers in 2008. But that speaks to the same basic point, which is that New England is so deeply blue that, even in a good Republican year, the Democrats will still win on average 57 percent of the vote. And in good Democratic years, the GOP will often not even field contenders.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward: 100 years ago New England used to be full of conservative Republicans, but now it is full of liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, the exit polling data in New England was pretty sparse this year, but I did manage to put the following chart together, which illustrates the basic point well enough.

That’s just a firewall into which there is no real incursion for the Republicans. The exception is flinty New Hampshire, which has long been an outlier. In the Jacksonian Age, when the rest of New England was fairly Whiggish, New Hampshire tilted toward the Democrats. It was also the only New England state to go for Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and for George W. Bush in 2000, which is interesting because the Wilson and Bush coalitions actually have a lot of nationwide overlap, both being founded on a South-West alliance (so did Jackson’s actually).

Moving on to the Mid-Atlantic, we see the Republicans doing much better. The GOP picked up a whopping 12 seats in this region. How did that happen? This chart will help get us started.

In all three states, what we basically see is the GOP snapping back to pre-2006 form. 

This is good to see, especially in New York. A quick and easy “pulse check” for the GOP is to see how it does in Upstate New York, historically a bastion of Republicanism and an indicator of its nationwide appeal. And as you can see, it wasn’t doing very well the last two cycles! What is especially noteworthy about the GOP’s six-seat pickup (net) in New York is that the party did it despite getting crushed at the top of the ticket – Paladino, DioGuardi, and Townsend all carried less than 40 percent of the vote, and lost every geographical region. So, these Republican victories depended on a good number of ticket splitters.

Now, what about Pennsylvania? Again, what we see here is that the Republicans are snapping back to where they have long been, which is the dominant congressional faction in the state. This might sound peculiar as Pennsylvania typically votes Democratic for president, but that has a lot to do with Philadelphia County, which is where most of the Democrats’ margin comes from (in 2000 and 2004, the margin that GOre and Kerry beat Bush statewide was actually less than their net vote hauls from Philadelphia County). Yet it is gerrymandered in such a way that it only yields the Democrats three congressional seats. 

When the election results first came back last week, I noted that they did not appear to exhibit any ringing endorsement of the Republican Party. We can clearly see that by looking at the historical exit polls from Pennsylvania.

As you can see, the GOP is still at a 20 year low in terms of party identification. The reason they did so well last week is that the Democrats are also at a 20 year low. 

Pennsylvania is also a good indication of the need for the importance of a strong presidential candidate with broad appeal. The reality is that Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett won the governor’s race in a walk while senatorial candidate Pat Toomey won it in a squeaker because Corbett was less polarizing. The evidence for this is pretty straightforward.

This chart follows the same basic logic as the one from Monday on the Florida governor’s race. I’m measuring “breadth of appeal” by looking at what percentage of Obama approvers did a Republican win as well as what percentage of Obama disapprovers did he lose. The idea is that a Republican with broader appeal would attract more Obama approvers and lose fewer Obama disapprovers. I’m using the national House ballot as a baseline under the assumption that, on average, broad and narrow Republican House candidates will cancel each other out and we’ll get a good sense of how a “generic” Republican would perform.

We can conclude from this that Corbett was broader than the generic Republican while Toomey’s was narrower. Both of them did better with Obama disapprovers than House Republicans nationwide, but the real difference came with Obama approvers. Corbett was able to draw 16 percent of them into his voting coalition, while Toomey attracted just 10 percent. The average House Republican pulled in 14 percent.

Where was Toomey weaker? The evidence suggests that it was in metropolitan Pittsburgh where he had his largest drop-off.

“Steelers Fans” are voters who live in the six counties of metro Pittsburgh. “Eagles Fans” are those who live in the five counties of metro Philadelphia (plus Berks County, which can be counted either way).

As we can see, Corbett did best among all other Republicans, and the real difference was in Western Pennsylvania.  This is impressive because he was running against Dan Onorato, who is the Allegheny County chief executive.

I think the lesson for Republicans about the difference between Corbett and Toomey is pretty straightforward. Corbett wound his way to the top of the political ladder via the attorney general position, while Toomey was a member of Congress. This meant that the latter had to take all sorts of votes on divisive issues, including trade issues. Joe Sestak hit Toomey very hard on this. 

This ad played frequently in Western Pennsylvania, and I think it was very effective.

The lesson, in my opinion, is that the Republican Party should look outside the U.S. Congress for its first choice for president. Members of Congress take too many tough votes, and the Obama-Biden campaign can use them against the Republican candidate with ease. 

As I said in Part 1, I don’t think this has a heck of a lot to do with ideology. To the extent there were ideological differences between the two, at least in terms of campaign pronouncements, they were pretty fine-grained. This is about background, and I think it indicates that governors make for better candidates than senators. Remember: In the last 30 years, when Republicans have run non-senators for president, they have gone five out of six. Senators have gone zero for two!

Check back in on Monday for the next installment.

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