Obamacare? The tea party? The shutdown? Abortion? No: this election was about the economy.
The 2013 elections were about Obamacare, say some. No, they were about the tea party, say others. No, they were about the war on women, say still others. The many and varied contests around the nation were about a lot of things. But in the three jurisdictions that garnered the most attention—New York City, New Jersey, and Virginia--the elections were about the economy. And if you had to declare an ideological victor, it would have to be liberalism.
New York City: The election of Bill de Blasio, the first Democrat sent to Gracie Mansion in two decades, affirmed the power of de Blasio’s message on economic inequality. In the September primary (which made his Nov. 5 victory a foregone conclusion), de Blasio moved up from fourth to first by telling voters that New York City had become a “tale of two cities,” one rich and one poor, and proposed a tax on high incomes in order to fund universal pre-K education. An exit poll showed that a 31% plurality of all voters deemed “jobs and unemployment” the most important issue, with education (21%) a distant second. In the Nov. 5 general, the proportion naming “jobs and unemployment” the most important issue rose to 38%.
“I talk about a crisis of inequality,” de Blasio told Dan Balz of the Washington Post on Oct. 19, “because it’s not just about the cost of living. It’s not just about the dumbing down of wages and benefits. It’s not just about the effects of the recession. It is all that plus continuing inequalities in education, continuing inequalities in health care, obviously deeper inequalities in policing than we experienced, say, a decade ago.” This mostly-economic message resonated with all income groups, including the “one percent”: Among voters whose income exceeded $100,000, de Blasio beat his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, 64-33%.
Virginia: Political junkies are puzzled that Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat Republican Ken Cuccinelli, a hard-right social conservative, by only two and a half percentage points in the gubernatorial race. After all, pre-election polls had shown McAuliffe up by six to 12 points. A logical answer would be the bungled rollout of Obamacare; an exit poll showed that 27% of voters ranked health care the most important issue. These voters favored McAuliffe 49-45%.
But the issue that a 45% plurality of Virginians ranked first was, once again, the economy. With a Democrat in the White House and unemployment at 7.2% as of September (the October numbers will be released Nov. 8), the economy was always going to hurt McAuliffe. And indeed, among those who ranked the economy first, Cuccinelli won, 49-43%. The economy may also explain why Cuccinelli won the state’s independents, 47-38%, even though many of these voters were expected to be turned off by Cuccinelli’s extreme views on abortion and climate change.
In the end, however, McAuliffe won the election. McAuliffe is no de Blasio—he’s a centrist business tycoon—but one result of his election is that Cucinnelli’s plan to lower individual and business tax rates (at a cost he projected to be $1.4 billion per year) won’t be enacted. In that sense, liberalism won.
New Jersey: Chris Christie’s second-term landslide gubernatorial victory in New Jersey, which was entirely expected, is being widely interpreted as a dress rehearsal for the 2016 presidential race and a shoring up of the GOP’s non-reactionary wing. But what it really demonstrates is that New Jersey’s increasingly Democratic electorate can nonetheless stomach a candidate whom Sean Trende of RealClear Politics correctly identifies as “easily the most conservative politician elected to statewide office in New Jersey in the past 60 years.”
Christie may be too liberal on gun control and immigration, and too willing to acknowledge climate change, to win his party’s presidential nomination. But when Christie rejects the “moderate” label, there’s no reason not believe him. Economically, he’s quite conservative.
An exit poll shows that New Jersey, even more than New York City and Virginia, saw the Nov. 5 election as being primarily about the economy. A 49% plurality ranked the economy first, with taxes a distant second (22%). On this issue, Christie beat his Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, 65-33%. Christie has sought a 10% reduction in the state income tax. He’s also opposed an increase in the state minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50, and he’s opposed indexing it in the future to inflation—a measure once embraced (and never quite repudiated) by Mitt Romney. (Christie did, however, state that he’d tolerate a gradual increase to $8.25.)
But Christie never enacted his income tax cut because New Jersey’s state legislature, which was (and will remain) heavily Democratic, blocked it. And though Christie did veto the minimum-wage increase to $8.50, on election day New Jersey voters enacted, by ballot initiative, an increase to $8.25 and future automatic increases pegged to the inflation rate. (That same day, voters in SeaTac, Washington, mandated a $15 “living wage” for hospitality and transporation workers at Seattle’s international airport.)
The only truly noteworthy election-day victory for conservative economic policy occurred in Colorado (a state with a Democratic governor and legislature). Colorado voters rejected a $1 billion school-financing measure that had backing from Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. Even in Colorado, though, victory was less than total. An effort by rural counties to secede from the state (motivated by hard-right views on various economic and social issues) fizzled, and Colorado voters approved a 15% excise tax and 10% sales tax on marijuana. From an economic perspective, taxing the herb would have to be judged liberal—even if antitax advocate Grover Norquist muddied the waters a bit by giving such taxes his blessing in advance.