On Elections, Think Local

Off-year elections are about local issues. nnTurnout tends to be low, especially in states that do not have high-profile offices at the top of the ticket, and that makes the results a somewhat unreliable bellwether for 2016.

That hasn’t stopped the national political pundits from divining national meaning from local tea leaves. This election, for instance, was a “conservative wave.” Except where it was a repudiation of Chris Christie, Barack Obama, the Affordable Care Act, gay rights, etc. Or where it was an endorsement of outsiders.

And while there is a grain of truth in each of these assertions, it is foolish to read too much into what happened Nov. 3.

Take New Jersey, for instance, where – if the numbers hold – Democrats will have picked up five seats in the state Assembly. The easy assumption is that this was a referendum on Gov. Chris Christie and that it shows that voters, even in his home state, dislike the governor’s policies. That’s likely a stretch.

It is true that the Democrats ran against Christie, as much as and probably more than they ran against sitting Republicans. But we need to be careful not to read too much into that. Running against Christie in New Jersey has a very different meaning here than it does elsewhere. Christie’s approval ratings have cratered, to be sure, but part of what has caused his downward spiral is his presidential run – he is now seen as an absentee landlord, so to speak, a man more concerned with his national profile than with fixing what ails the state.

It also is important to note that Christie has had little impact on the electoral success of the state’s Republican party down ticket. New Jersey remains blue – 59% of voters went for Barack Obama in 2012, and while Christie managed to crack 60% of the vote in 2013, he still attracted nearly 900,000 fewer voters than Obama (and about 200,000 fewer than Romney). Just as importantly, Christie’s coattails were nearly non-existent – the Republicans picked up a single Assembly seat in 2009, when Christie ousted the incumbent – and incredibly unpopular — Democratic governor, Jon Corzine. The Republicans then lost a seat during the 2011 off year and then broke even in 2013.

Does this mean that this year’s Nov. 3 results have no bearing on the presidential race in 2016? Not necessarily. What it does do, I think, is show that there are a lot of things in play when a voter enters the voting booth – including who is at the top of the ticket, who is president or governor, and what the primary drivers of local races just might be.

In New Jersey, Christie’s absence has been as important as his policy failures. In Houston, where a civil rights measure failed, and in Kentucky, where the GOP captured the governor’s office, socially conservative voters did what you might expect conservative red-state voters to do – and let’s face it, New Jersey, Texas and Kentucky are not states that will be in play come November 2016.

The lessons that we should be taking from this year’s election – and from every off-year election – are not that they offer a glimpse into what voters will do when the presidency is at stake, but rather that we have a problem in our democracy. Turnout hit historical lows in many states, making the results far less representative of what citizens desire than what a small committed minority wants. The nationalizing of local and state elections does not help, signaling as it does to voters that the only thing worth worrying about is the White House.

Ultimately, this has real consequences – in state tax, health, energy and land-use policies, in infrastructure repair, in the provision of services, in state-level civil rights protections, in redistricting of state and federal offices and so on. Local elections are important because they have local consequences, and it is time we stop treating them as the undercard for the presidential race.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Facebook, facebook .com/hank.kalet

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2015

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652