Bush's Minor Role in Election Outcomes This week's off-year state election results were not about George W. Bush. While the Bush administration has official (or at least discernible) positions bearing on many of these contests, those positions bore remarkably little weight.
NPR logo Bush's Minor Role in Election Outcomes

Bush's Minor Role in Election Outcomes

At the risk of having to turn in my pundit's badge and gun, let me say what must be said: this week's off-year election results were not about George W. Bush.

This statement is, of course, anathema in the world of media politics -- a world in which everything must begin and end with the president. The most inevitable question in any broadcast interview is always the same: "What does this mean for the president?"

In this case the answer to that question ought to be pretty simple. But most of us in Washington find it all but impossible to admit that a round of voting anywhere was not about the president or the vice president or any of their staff. After all, that would mean it wasn't all about Washington.

This week's voting was, in fact, all about the individual races and ballot questions in the several states. And while the Bush administration has official (or at least discernible) positions bearing on many of these contests, those positions bore remarkably little weight.

Voters in Virginia and New Jersey had many motivating factors specific to their states and candidates, not the least of which were the personalities of the candidates themselves. Voters may also have been rejecting some classic examples of ham-fisted negative ads. In Virginia, Democratic nominee Tim Kaine was cast as soft on Hitler because he says his religious beliefs are opposed to capital punishment. In New Jersey, Democratic nominee Jon Corzine had to contend with nasty quotations from his divorced wife.

In Virginia, the man behind the results was not Bush but current governor Mark Warner, a term-limited Democrat whose style and success in office clearly carried Kaine -- especially in the crucial Northern Virginia suburbs.

In New Jersey, now a solid Democratic venue, the heavy financial advantage of Democrat Jon Corzine, an incumbent senator worth hundreds of millions of dollars, outweighed the troubled legacy of his party in the statehouse.

And if these two marquee races had little to do with Mr. Bush, the president was completely invisible in California, where voters rejected four ballot measures Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had begged them to pass.

Perhaps the most direct slap the president got was in St. Paul, Minn., where a Democratic mayor who broke with his party to back Bush in 2004 was turned out of office in a landslide. In the rest of the big-city mayoral contests, the president was about as important as he is to urban fashion.

The election most difficult for analysts to resist over-analyzing was Virginia's gubernatorial vote. As the one state with a one-term limit on its governor, the Old Dominion gets read as a political weathervane just about every four years.

The president had also taken a risk by attending the election eve rally for the GOP candidate, Jerry Kilgore. Although it was their only appearance together, White House handlers had to know it would serve to hang Kilgore around the president's neck. In the end, though, they figured the president might get more credit for a Kilgore win than discredit for a Kilgore loss (and they figured, correctly, they'd get the latter anyway).

Obviously, none of this is going to stop a torrent of Bush-baiting by Democrats (and Bush blaming by some Republicans). And in any event, being a minor factor of Election Day is hardly good news for the president. No occupant of the Oval Office should be pleased when this many people go to the polls with no thought of him.

Thinking back one year to the president's re-election triumph and his broad reading of his mandate, it's hard to believe he could be this small a factor for candidates and causes he favors.

What may be most worth noting in all this on the national level is the degree to which events on many fronts have superceded the agenda the president wanted to pursue this year and beyond.