Thursday, August 17, 2006

Looking for a Big Message From Tuesday? There Ain’t One

By Stuart Rothenberg

Once again we are all scrambling to find an explanation — a dramatic trend or some big conclusion that can make us all feel insightful — from Tuesday’s primary results. Well, there isn’t much of one, despite what you may have read or heard.

As everyone who has taken a course on methodology knows, there is a difference between a statistical relationship and a causal relationship.

If the New York Yankees win every day in September that it rains in Kansas City, there is a statistical relationship between the Yankees winning and rain in Kansas City. But there isn’t necessarily a causal relationship, though, of course, there could be. It all depends whether you can identify how rain in Kansas City causes the Yankees to win, why a Yankee victory would cause precipitation in western Missouri, or what outside force is causing both Yankee victories and rainfall in Kansas City.

Three distinct events occurred on Tuesday — incumbent primary losses in Georgia, Michigan and Connecticut — that led reporters and other observers to look for a factor responsible for all three outcomes.

Was there a single message on Tuesday about voter anger, dissatisfaction with the status quo and change? Let’s examine the races individually.

DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson defeated Rep. Cynthia McKinney in Georgia’s 4th district Democratic primary. McKinney, of course, already had been defeated once before, by state court judge Denise Majette in the 2002 Democratic House primary.

McKinney has had another bizarre year, including an altercation with a member of the Capitol Police, and she increasingly has earned a reputation as a political bomb thrower. Majette’s 58 percent to 42 percent victory in the runoff four years ago was not very different from Johnson’s 59 percent to 41 percent runoff victory, suggesting that the kind of electorate that votes in the midterms isn’t to McKinney’s advantage.

Johnson was not a particularly strong candidate, raising only $170,000 through July 17, the date of his pre-primary report. Majette, by contrast, raised and spent close to $2 million in her primary challenge, most of it in the primary.

But while all this is interesting, it doesn’t suggest to me that McKinney fell because of some generalized voter dissatisfaction with incumbents or the status quo. She lost because voters didn’t like her antics. The race was a referendum on the incumbent and her style. It wasn’t about her longevity in office or her responsibility for the war in Iraq (which she opposes), President Bush’s proposal to overhaul Social Security (which she opposed) or gas prices.

The Michigan 7th district House race, where minister and former state Rep. Tim Walberg defeated Rep. Joe Schwarz in the GOP primary, also had little to do with generalized voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was not evidence of a broad anti-incumbent sentiment. Instead, it was a message about one incumbent, Schwarz, and one electorate, GOP primary voters in the district.

Schwarz, 68, is a moderate and an accidental Member of Congress. He won a six-way primary in 2004, largely because conservative voters divided their votes among other hopefuls.

Schwarz won with just under 28 percent of the vote two years ago, and he almost certainly would have lost that primary if the field had been smaller. He lost a previous bid for a GOP Congressional nomination in 1992 and was defeated in 2002, when he drew just 18 percent of the vote, in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

This year, the third-place finisher in the 2004 GOP primary, Walberg — who had drawn almost 18 percent of the 2004 primary vote — ran as Schwarz’s sole competition. Conservatives, including the Club for Growth, backed Walberg, and he defeated Schwarz, 53 percent to 47 percent. Ideology trumped incumbency, as it sometimes does.

Both the Georgia and Michigan races were about the incumbents, albeit in different ways. But the contests weren’t about incumbency in general, the public’s desire for change or the Yankees’ loss to the White Sox on Tuesday.

As for Connecticut, I believe there was an element of generic “time for a change” in the Senate primary, but only an element. The race primarily was about Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), his support for the war in Iraq and his partial embrace of the president.

Were it not for the war, Lieberman would have won renomination, no matter how sanctimonious he seemed to critics and no matter how much more focused he was on national, rather than state, matters.

I’m not totally dismissing a general “time for a change” message in that primary, since Lieberman hasn’t paid as much attention to the folks back home as he should have. Still, any general “change” message was only a small, small part of Lieberman’s problem.

Does this mean that I’m disputing the notion that voters are unhappy with the direction of the nation and the president’s performance? Obviously not, if you’ve been reading this column. I’ve repeatedly argued that the elections have been nationalized and that they will be about change. It’s just that two of the three elections last week had nothing to do with that mood, and the Connecticut Democratic primary was more about Iraq and Bush than about a throw-’em-out mindset this year.

To those who assume that three events on a single day automatically must be explained by something bigger than local considerations, I can respond only that it simply is chance that the Georgia runoff, and the Michigan and Connecticut primaries happened to be held on the same day. Sorry, that’s all it is.

So far, three sitting incumbents — two House Members and one Senator — have been defeated in primaries. Those House numbers are not at all out of sync with incumbent primary defeats in non-post-redistricting cycles over the past 60 years. Senate primary defeats are rarer, though the previous one, in New Hampshire in 2002, surely was not about anti-incumbency or dissatisfaction with the direction of the nation.

So my answer to all of the questions and response to all of the analysis is simple: There is a mood for change. Republican incumbents are more vulnerable than they would otherwise be because of it. But the results of last Tuesday have little to do with that. Last Tuesday, virtually all politics was local.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on August 14, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.