Friday, November 5, 2010

2010 in NC: tidal wave or rip tide?

Now that the dust appears to be settling on the 2010 mid-term elections and before we start analyzing for the 2012 presidential election, let’s take a look at what all this might mean.

Observation #1: it wasn’t just the Tea Party, but independents as well. The exit polls seem to indicate a double-whammy for the party-in-power. While voters who identify with both major parties went back to 2004 norms, it was the ideological composition of the electorate that really stood out.

For the past three elections, the ideology of the U.S. electorate remained stable—20% of US voters identified themselves as liberals, 44 to 47% identified as moderates, and 32-34% identified as conservatives. This year, conservatives ran their percentage up to 41, while moderates dropped to 39. Early analysis may indicate that there were just more conservatives out there who showed up, while moderates (read independents) stayed home. But you have to look at party identification as well to make that judgment.

U.S. voters who identified themselves as Republicans went from 37% of the electorate in ’04 to 32% in ’08, reflecting disenchantment with the GOP. This year, that number rebounded to 36%, tied with the Democratic percentage, leaving 28% identifying themselves as “independent.” But again, it was independents who made the difference, and they split 60/40 to the Republicans. More on that later.

Observation #2: what happened to North Carolina’s competitive congressional districts? We thought all along that the endangered species, commonly known as Southern conservative Democrats, would be wiped out this year. Yes, South Carolina’s John Spratt was taken out, but Larry Kissell, Mike McIntyre, and Heath Shuler all survived. The surprise of the night came with Democrat Bob “Who are you!” Etheridge in the second congressional district. So maybe the Republican wave didn’t hit North Carolina as hard as we thought at the federal level, but a rip current did have an effect at the state level.

Observation #3: the rip tide pulled the N.C. General Assembly to the GOP. It was the undercurrent of the Republican wave—most identified with Rowan County’s own 77th House District—that is the biggest news coming out of 2010. Classic swing districts like the 77th are prone to being caught up in dramatic wave elections, but this one also pulled out a number of Democrats in “lean Democratic” districts in the state house and senate. So, for the first time in 112 years, the GOP has complete control the North Carolina General Assembly.

And if there’s one election that every political party wants to win every ten years, they will always take the one that occurs in a year ending in zero: because they get to redistrict.

With the power of redistricting, or redrawing the lines of the game, a political party can create “winnable” districts for their party and protect their incumbents, while at the same time making it difficult, if not impossible, for the minority party to regain majority status. In North Carolina, with the exception of getting the federal government’s approval, it’s in the hands of the GOP to redraw the lines of competition—and they will do it for their benefit. Thus, to the victor go the spoils, and this year’s spoil is gerrymandering.

One more observation: 2010 was the third “change” election we’ve seen. While Republicans had a good evening, especially at the state and local level due to mobilization and straight ticket voting, my crystal ball is giving an early hint to 2012: change may come again. If issues and concerns aren’t addressed, the American electorate (read: independents) is very willing to swing around until they find someone or some party that will address their concerns. In 2008, independents went 60/40 for Democrats—this year, they went 60/40 for Republicans. If neither party steps up to address issues, be careful of the swing in 2012.