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2012 as 2010

I'm still on the prowl for precinct-level results for the recent Special Election, but for whatever it helps, here's the 2010 results in red and blue for Kings and Queens counties, with CD09 outlined. What that view suggests to me is that this district had all the markings of a district ripe for an upset. Like a lot of 2010 upsets, turnout is a big part of that. And while turnout didn't seem to be enough for the GOP challenger in 2010, it was enough in a Special Election.

Here's the math that spells that out (second and third line for Dem/GOP votes are other party tickets that each received votes for):

        Dem      GOP     Blank       TV
2008  106,097    -----   82,481    203,070
2010   60,879   37,750    7,408    117,613
        2,800    5,379
2011   27,669   32,446             >61,000

There are two basic ways to look at this: assume that it was entirely a turnout phenomenon or assume that people changed their mind. In most of the Texas and other southern states that I've looked at, I'm willing to say that the 2010 results were approximately 80-90% a turnout phenomenon (I really should get to quantifying that more precisely). In other words: Republicans in Republican boxes were more insistent go get out and vote than Democrats in Democratic boxes. You can see that in the turnout levels at the precinct level.

Since I don't have precinct level returns for the 2011 Special in NY-09, it's hard to offer up a rock-solid case for the results being primarily a turnout phenomenon. But the fact that the total vote was slightly more than half of the 2010 results is a good leading indicator. Turner, the GOP nominee, got about 85% of the vote that he had in 2010, while the Democratic nominee got 45%. That's somewhat on par with what we saw in 2010 results compared to 2008. So while it's not conclusive, it's fairly suggestive that this loss is the result of GOP voters being more eager to go vote in a Special Election compared to Democrats.

All of this gets to what the meaning of this election suggests for 2012. NYC Mayor Bloomberg says "forget about it" since Dems won a Special Election in NY-26 mere months ago. There's something to that, but I'm not inclined to say that there's absolutely zero meaning in either just because they were "local."

The more alarmist New York Post opines that "disaster looms" for Obama in 2012. The column goes on to add that this win might pose a threat to Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman, whose neighboring district may see Turner run there if redistricting eliminates the core of the current 9th District. I'm less certain that the results spell doom, but they're worth paying attention to more for what impact the enthusiasm gap tells than the percentages of a turnout slugfest.

Likewise, Nate Silver seems to focus on a lot of inputs for his take that the collective 2011 Special Elections suggest a rerun of 2010 for Obama:

There are good reasons to think that local issues may have loomed especially large in New York’s 9th Congressional District, where the Republican Bob Turner won on Tuesday. President Obama had significantly underperformed his Democratic predecessors in the district in 2008, and the large split in voting between the Brooklyn and Queens portions of the district — the Brooklyn parts are more heavily Jewish — implies that Israel-related issues may have played a role.

There were other local factors as well: influential endorsements for Mr. Turner by Democratic leaders like former Mayor Ed Koch and the Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and local rabbis; the close timing of the election with the Sept. 11 anniversary; the fact that the district had been vacated by a Democrat, Anthony Weiner, in a scandal; and perhaps gay marriage in a district that is economically liberal but fairly religious, with pockets of social conservatism.

I'm a big fan of Nate's but I think he's committing a grievous error by focusing on the final percentages and ignoring the turnout levels. Yes, the issues he lists are certainly important in the case of NY-09, just as any other issues would be important in other contests. But whether those drove the enthusiasm gap or got voters to change their minds isn't known.

And, just to be sure, I'm not going on a limb to suggest no voters changed their minds in 2011. But before I make that sort of statement, I'd want to see precinct-level data that shows some pattern of blue-to-red precincts. My own analysis may be shaded quite a bit by focusing more on Harris County and other urban counties in Texas. And I'm well aware that not every place in the world behaves the same outside of Texas borders. But in 2010 in the big Texas urban counties, the traditional blue boxes went blue and the traditional red boxes went red. The swing boxes typically went red for everyone except Bill White - especially in Harris County. And when you looked at the turnout in each precinct, many GOP precincts turned out at far higher levels than previous midterms while the Democratic boxes turned out at more normal midterm levels. In some cases, the GOP precincts turned out at nearly Presidential levels. That explains the wipeout that was 2010 in Texas. Maybe a bunch of Hassidic Jews decided that a legislator who voted for gay marriage wasn't their cup of tea and started voting Republican in this latest election. We just don't know that until we see the hard data that starts to paint the picture more fully.

National Journal's Josh Kraushaar gets to the point a bit better in his post-mortem:

Put simply, Obama and Republicans in Congress are both unpopular—and voters are taking out their anger on Democrats—even in a reliably Democratic district. The president’s base of supporters isn’t showing up, while his opponents are as mobilized as ever. Obama’s approval ratings are lower than they were in 2010, when Republicans picked up a historic number of House seats.

That's about as media-friendly a way that you can paint the election as a function of turnout without getting into my boring math and cartography. Whether that's the appropriate lesson to take from it all, we'll see as soon as I get my grubby hands on precinct level data from New York.

Now, even if it comes out that NY-09 was yet another turnout phenomenon, that doesn't necessarily mean that Obama is off the hook for 2012. There are sources of the current enthusiasm gap that will be more muted when we're truly in a national election next year. I'm not going to go so far as to say that Obama can replicate the 2008 turnout, but how close he gets to that point and whether there is a few more percentage points of GOP turnout to pick up from 2008 remains to be seen. Beyond that, the hope for Obama is that not as many voters are truly changing their minds as the conventional wisdom seems to suggest.

UPDATES: Two more reactions. From The Atlantic ...

"This is outer-borough New York," says Joseph Mercurio, a New York Democratic political media consultant. "It's more conservative, it's more Jewish, it's older, it's white. You have to assume it's a competitive race." Mercurio suggest that House Democrats bungled the situation from the start. "If they'd let Anthony Weiner go to rehab and then reapportioned the district out of existence, they'd have saved everybody a million dollars."

And another from Washington Jewish Week ...

In a conference call about the race earlier today, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that in no way can the Weprin-Turner race been seen as a bellwether match.

There were "unusual circumstances" in NY's 9th district, she said, explaining that she remains confident that Obama will receive an "overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote" next year.

Added Sen. Chuck Schumer during the call: "The district is not a bellwether. It's one of the more conservative districts in New York City."

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