John Judis of The Nation believes that election reflects the voters' confidence in Obama:
Special elections in the first year of a new president are important because the parties turn them into national referenda. And this election was no exception. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden campaigned for Murphy in the closing weeks; Murphy, who was relatively unknown in the district, based his campaign largely on his support for and Tedesco’s opposition to Obama’s stimulus plan.Ethan Porter, an Associate Editor at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, published an article in The Nation which argues that the election has nothing to do with Obama:
In the first month of the campaign, Murphy, a businessman from Missouri who recently moved to the district, trailed Tedesco--and since Republicans boast a 70,000 voter edge in registration, he should not have been able to catch him. But based on a campaign that emphasized his support for Obama, he did catch up and on election night surpassed him.
Murphy’s election night edge doesn’t suggest that the Democrats will romp in 2010. . . . But if Murphy had lost by a significant margin . . . it would have shown that within a district that Obama carried in 2008, there was a significant undercurrent of discontent with his presidency and his policies. . . .
[T]he results of tomorrow's election will reflect very little about popular opinion of [the Obama] administration. Yes, national issues have intruded; the Democrats are blanketing the district with campaign paraphernalia tying Tedisco to Rush Limbaugh, and Tedisco has hammered Murphy for supporting the stimulus package. But this is a local race, in a district that's trended blue only very recently, and somewhat by accident. "Murphy should lose, given the constitution of the district," says Jonathan Becker, a long-time observer of district politics and a political science professor at Bard College.My Take
Before the 2006 election, Republicans maintained a 15 percent enrollment advantage, and Gillibrand managed to unseat incumbent John Sweeney only after a police report surfaced showing 911 had once received a domestic violence complaint from his wife. Even after that, Gillibrand just squeaked by. Her victory was in large part owed to her ferocious campaigning skills; even in her first race, she had the aplomb and tenacity of a veteran politician. She only beat her 2008 opponent after developing a reputation as a star-in-the-making and building a formidable political machine. And even then, there were still about 70,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district.
Exit polling is probably the simplest way to determine whether President Obama's performance influenced voters in the special election. But it is unclear if or when such data will emerge.
In my opinion, Judis sometimes overstates his arguments, and he probably has done so with respect to his analysis of this election's national significance. The fact that Republicans have a 70,000 voter registration advantage does not say much about recent electoral trends in the district. Gillibrand, whose nomination to the Senate caused the need for the special election in the first place, was a second-term Democratic representative of the district. And, as the New York Times observes, Gillibrand remains "remains highly popular across party lines." She and Governor Paterson also campaigned for Murphy.
Regardless of which candidate ultimately wins, his party will claim that the victory either supports or condemns President Obama's policies. The inevitability of the spin, however, does not make it an accurate statement of the voters' decision making.