A couple years ago, when Scott Brown won his special Senate Election in Massachusetts, I made a before and after graph showing that little had changed in terms of the balance of power in Washington, and that people should just calm down a bit in terms of all the “everything is going to be different from now on” talk. Of course, the Republicans then went on to seize the House and a lot more Senate seats in 2012, making the Massachusetts Special Election looks precisely like the bellwether election everyone claimed it was.

Which brings us to NY-9. On the one hand, it does even less to change the balance of power in the country than the Scott Brown election. The Republicans controlled the House yesterday and they control the House today, and it is hard to imagine that the median voter in the Republican caucus or the House as a whole has really shifted dramatically. Moreover, the seat probably won’t even exist in 2012 due to redistricting, thus making the long term ramifications of the fact that it changed party hands even less important.

So if this is going to “mean” anything, it has to be because it is symbolic of things to come. So the obvious “thing to come” is that this presages even greater losses for the Democrats in 2012 due to Obama’s sinking popularity and, perhaps a bit more specifically, the fact that he may have trouble holding onto orthodox Jewish voters (although I’m guessing the number of House districts in the US where the orthodox Jewish vote is pivotal is somewhat limited beyond Brooklyn). And this fits nicely with our normal political science narrative that the president owns the economy, and as long as the economy is tanking, the president and his party are in trouble.

However, here’s an alternative argument put forward by John Avalon at The Daily Beast

It’s true that this Queens-Brooklyn district, once represented by Geraldine Ferraro, hasn’t voted for a GOP congressman in 80 years. But the same was true in western New York’s 23rd district, which voted for Democrat Bill Owens after being in GOP hands since 1872 and the Buffalo district overlapping areas once held by Jack Kemp, which voted for Democrat Kathy Hochul in May’s special election.

The common theme between the two is not a national partisan pendulum swing but anger at the political establishment—a vote against the status quo. It’s a wake-up call that both parties should take notice.

This is a very important question. Andy asked yesterday who is going to get credit for the recovery when it comes, but I think we may want to think seriously about who is going to get blamed for the economy in 2012. Yes, we have tons of research in US Politics showing that the president suffers in the face of poor economic conditions, and that this also extends to congressional candidates in the president’s party. However, as John has posted about here before, there is new research suggesting that the majority party in the House pays a price when Congress is unpopular.

And for all of Obama’s problems, Congress is now really, really unpopular. So much so, I think we are in completely uncharted territory now, at least in the era of modern political polling. From a September 12, 2011 Gallup Report:

I mean, look at that graph! In the past 40 years, there hasn’t been anywhere near that gap between disapproval and approval that we are seeing now (and which seems to show no signs of diminishing any time soon). If anything was to suggest we don’t really know what will happen in Congressional elections in 2012, it’s a graph that looks that.

So I return to the original question: does NY-9 mean Obama’s Democrats are tainted, or does it mean any Congressional incumbent can lose??

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.