There will be much debate in the morning about whether or not the bad results for Democrats in the Governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey – both states where Barack Obama campaigned for the Democrat and the Democrat sought to join himself at the hip with Obama – reflect public anger at Obama and his Administration. This is an interesting debate, but let us not miss a critical point:
Obama tried to help Deeds and Corzine, and was unable to do so. He can help nobody but himself. And that fact alone is hugely significant.
Democrats will point to exit polls showing that Obama retains a healthy approval rating among those who went to the polls in today’s two battleground states. But one of the signal exit poll items was pointed out by Jake Tapper: in NJ, which Obama carried by 15 points a year ago, 19% of the voters told exit pollsters they were casting ballots in support of Obama, and 20% against. In other words, even in a very pro-Obama electorate, he was a small net drag on the Democratic candidate, and certainly no help despite campaigning ardently for Jon Corzine.
This is consistent with what we’ve seen nationally: Obama remains personally popular (if far less so than on his Inauguration Day, which remains the high point of his presidency), but his popularity doesn’t rub off on his policies, much less on other Democrats, especially white male Democrats like Deeds and Corzine who have no claim to being historic symbols of national progress. The record turnout among racial-minority and youth voters generated by the 2008 Obama campaign was not replicable in 2009 without his personal presence on the ballot. And of course, the same will be true in 2010, when Obama himself is not personally on the ballot and will again make every effort to explain helpfully to other Democrats that they lost their jobs for reasons unrelated to his precious historic personal popularity.
The revelation that Obama cannot help other Democrats get elected is, of course, bound to affect his ability to govern; he can’t convince wavering “Blue Dog” Democrats that supporting him in return for his campaign appearances in their districts will do any more for them than it did for Jon Corzine or Creigh Deeds. But then, so long as people like Barack Obama, maybe it doesn’t matter so much to him if he actually accomplishes anything. After all, he is “change.” Just don’t expect a lot of Democratic incumbents to consider that a bankable asset in the future.