In the world of political geekery, there are few activities as exhilarating as examining election returns and explaining why what happened happened—especially for journalists like me. But just because we're having fun doesn't mean we know what we're talking about.
Consider, for example, last November's gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. When Republicans won both races, hordes of pundits rushed to their cable-TV perches and declared that the American electorate had contracted a serious case of incumbent fever, which the Merck Manual defines as "an overwhelming desire to 'kick the bums out,' whoever said bums might be." This made some sense then: the economy was bad, the Democrats were in charge, so why not trying something else?
Unfortunately, it makes a whole let less sense now. Last night Rick Perry clobbered Kay Bailey Hutchison, 51 percent to 30 percent, in Texas's Republican gubernatorial primary; Debra Medina finished a distant third with 19 percent of the vote. Some Beltway bloviators—like, say, Jim VandeHei of Politico—were still spouting the anti-incumbent theory as late as this morning. "This is another wake-up call for all incumbents," VandeHei wrote. "Anybody's job is at risk."
The only problem? Medina, a tea-party favorite, was the race's clear "outsider" candidate. Hutchison was the challenger. And Perry was the incumbent.
What's worse, he was anything but an anomaly. Across Texas, eight of the 11 GOP incumbents running for U.S. Congress successfully fended off tea-party opponents—two others are likely to win in runoffs—and establishment candidates all but swept the state legislature. In other words, it wasn't exactly a banner night for the insurgency.
How, then, to explain the results from Texas? Some have cited Perry's win as evidence of anti-Washington, rather than anti-incumbent, sentiment—and, given Hutchison's long Senate career and deep connections to key Bush advisers, this is at least partially true. But Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate in Virginia, was pretty un-Washington, too, and he lost to his slick Republican opponent, Bob McDonnell, by a whopping 17 points. Others will say that victories like Perry's and McDonnell's simply suggest that conservatives will win everywhere, no matter what, because hatred of President Obama and the Democratic Congress is just that strong. But while the Democratic backlash is real, the latest polls out of California, where an unpopular Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, currently holds office, show Democrat Jerry Brown leading his likely GOP challenger, Meg Whitman, and it's not hard to imagine that if New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine had been a Republican, he would've lost to a Democratic insurgent by a considerable margin.
All of which is just to say: of course there are anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, and anti-Democratic forces shaping the political landscape as we head into the 2010 midterms. That's what happens when the economy is this bad and Dems are in power. But the only conclusion that's safe to draw from the results we've seen so far—the only conclusion that applies across the board—is the same one that Tip O'Neill arrived at so many years ago: all politics is local. Perry, the incumbent, won the Texas primary because the Lone Star State, home to big energy and high-tech companies, hasn't felt the recession nearly as much as the rest of the country, and incumbent governors tend to get most of the credit—and blame—for how their state is doing economically. This, conversely, is why Corzine, also an incumbent, lost New Jersey, and why Whitman might lose California. Certain recipes (high unemployment + Democratic incumbent) will usually produce certain results (a Republican victory). But that hardly proves a single formula will apply to every race.
Just something to keep in mind the next time a guy like me tries to tell you what it all means.