What Election Results Say About The Obama Effect The midyear election is historically a bad one for first-term presidents. This year, there's no argument that the Democrats got a slap in the face, and the Republicans got a much-needed victory. But what does this tell us about President Obama's likely effect in 2010?
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What Election Results Say About The Obama Effect

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What Election Results Say About The Obama Effect

What Election Results Say About The Obama Effect

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

President BARACK OBAMA: Change has come to America.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SIEGEL: That was one year ago today. Barack Obama made history, in part, by changing the electorate. He brought in millions of new voters.

NORRIS: One year later, the president and his party were unable to get all those voters back.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on what yesterday's results meant for the president, his party and the Republicans.

MARA LIASSON: There's already a feisty argument going on about what the election results tell us, but there's no argument about the score. The Democrats got a slap in the face. The Republicans a much-needed victory. Here's RNC chair Michael Steele.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): The bottom line is that the GOP last night became, I think, transcendent in that it moved beyond the past losses and no message and no meaning for the American people. And I think yesterday we had two candidates who've set the milestones for us, and that'll hopefully point the way to 2010 and beyond.

LIASSON: Some Republicans went further and claimed the vote was a referendum on the president and his policies. Not so fast, says David Axelrod, President Obama's political adviser. Exit polls show that in New Jersey and Virginia, voters were not trying to send a message to the president. So, why wasn't Mr. Obama, with his campaign visits to both states, able to turn out voters who supported him just one year ago?

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Political Adviser): You know, enthusiasm isn't always transferable and particularly when you're asking people to vote in a state race that is a little bit removed from the national issues and the national race. So, I think you're going to see a lot of folks who were supportive of the president last year re-engage for national elections next year. And, obviously, we'll work very hard to keep them engaged.

LIASSON: One important lesson from last night's vote, says analyst Charlie Cook, is that the Obama phenomenon only works when he himself is on the ballot.

Mr. CHARLIE COOK (Analyst): It was gone. It was gone last night that President Obama still had positive job approval ratings in both Virginia and in New Jersey, but that wasn't enough. It didn't convey. The young people, minorities didn't show up so much. And the Independents didn't swing their way.

LIASSON: The question for Republicans now is can they capitalize on this? Republican base voters are fired up and ready to go, just like Democrats were last year. But the Republican brand is still damaged. Less than 25 percent of voters identify themselves as Republicans, says former Republican Congressman Tom Davis, who used to chair his party's congressional campaign committee.

Mr. TOM DAVIS (Former Republican Congressman): The other thing we have to remember is this will apply to the midterms as much as anything else. Voters aren't putting Republicans back in power, they're just putting a check on Obama. They've already rendered their verdict on Republicans. They don't like them. Any gains the Republicans make aren't because the Republicans have changed. It's just because maybe voters feel maybe the Democrats have gone too far and they want to send them a message.

LIASSON: Republicans learned other lessons last night. In Virginia, says Charlie Cook, where Bob McDonnell won the governor's race, they may have found a model for how committed social conservatives can win in swing states.

Mr. COOK: They nominated a conservative � a staunch conservative � but one who projected a very moderate, mainstream, nonthreatening image and stylistically a moderate.

LIASSON: For the White House, there's a danger in the way the results could be interpreted, particularly by Democrats in Congress from districts carried by John McCain or George Bush. They could get spooked and be even less willing to stick with the president's agenda. Pollster Joel Benenson, who's a member of the president's political team, says that would be a mistake.

Mr. JOEL BENENSON (Pollster): Every race is unique. That's the caveat I would give to candidates in competitive districts is, you know, don't think that what happened in New Jersey has anything to do with your congressional district in Michigan. It doesn't. I think you have to be in touch with what kind of change people wanted economically, and when it comes to issues like health care or energy or reform. And I think that you could misread and misinterpret these results far too easily.

LIASSON: But Charlie Cook predicts President Obama's job keeping his own party united behind him will get a little harder.

Mr. BENENSON: If I were a democratic member of Congress, I would either listen to my heart or my pollster, but not so much President Obama.

LIASSON: And that's a thought that has to worry the White House on the day after the off-year elections.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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