A Word of Caution about Yesterday's Results

At Politico, Ben Smith offers some useful meta-commentary on last night’s election results:

There are two basic ways to (over)interpret the evening’s results. The more ambitious one is to claim a broad new mandate, a positive choice by voters of a different path. Greg Sargent, for instance, sees more evidence of public sympathy for “shared sacrifice” and taxes on the wealthy. 

The other way to read the results is as a fundamentally negative verdict. The referenda fell to “no” votes, after all, and Senator Peace was recalled. And so some Democrats seem to be pointing to an electorate that’s reacting against dramatic change, and toward a kind of center.

I said this on Twitter last night, but I would caution against the urge to overinterpret (which would put me in the latter of Smith’s camps). Often, the outcome of races in off-year elections has more to do with the idiosyncrancies of the area than it does with any broad shifts in ideology or public opinion. Republican success in Virginia, for example, has more to do with a listless and ineffectual Democratic Party than it did with voter attitudes toward President Obama or the state’s governor, Bob McDonnell. Likewise, the success of labor in Ohio and anti-choice activists in Mississippi was, in large part, a story of organization, dedication, and an ideologically extreme opposition. It’s not at all clear that you can generalize these results into a useful lesson for the nation writ large.