Election Results: What 2011 Says About 2012

Controversial measures are rejected in 2011 election.

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Politicians beware: what the voters giveth, they also taketh away.

That's the message many election watchers are taking from Tuesday's results and predict will hold true in 2012.

From Ohio's rejection of legislation that would have curbed public employee union rights to Arizona's dismissal of the state politician who authored a controversial immigration law, the same voters who embraced Tea Party conservatives in 2010 pushed back on perceived overreaches of power.

"They have over-interpreted their mandates or over-estimated the public's appetite for all of the agenda items in victorious wish list," says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former policy advisor to President Clinton. He said it's a pattern that dates back to 2004 and is a message voters have sent to both Republicans and Democrats.

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In addition to the results in Arizona and Ohio, conservatives also saw setbacks in Mississippi, where voters by a wider than expected margin turned back a so-called 'personhood' amendment that would have designated fertilized eggs as people, and voters in Maine restored Election Day voter registration after the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law eliminating it.

"Let's face it, this is one of the first 2012 elections," said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, reflecting on the results. "The voters are saying this is an extreme agenda, don't take away our basic rights, don't mess with Democracy."

In both Maine and Ohio, Republicans were swept into power in 2010 and politicians sought to capitalize on their perceived mandate.

Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University, says it's important not to interpret the union win over Republican Gov. John Kasich's proposal limiting public union rights as an endorsement of Democrats.

"I wouldn't use the election results in Ohio to predict an Obama victory in Ohio or elsewhere, but I do think that this is a good example of what can happen if one political party gets too greedy," he says. "It tends to trigger a backlash and right now Gov. John Kasich and Ohio's Republicans are licking their wounds."

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Voters in the Buckeye state also overwhelmingly rejected the individual mandate in the national health care reform law championed by Obama, though the result will not impact the federal law's effect.

Galston points to Virginia's latest results, where Republicans gained control of the state Senate, as evidence that conservatism isn't being rejected—just extremism.

"If you look at the results in Virginia, it appears that sort of a pragmatic brand of moderate conservatism, seen as problem solving rather than point scoring, is reasonably attractive to voters," he says.

That's something that should hearten Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor currently seeking the GOP presidential nomination, and concern his conservative rival Texas Gov. Rick Perry and incumbent Democrat President Obama, Galston says.

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"If (Republicans) look at these results squarely and honestly, they can reach only one conclusion and that is that they would be better off nominating a moderate conservative than a movement conservative," he says. "If they insist on purity, they're going to endanger their chances of victory."

But both Galston and Tokaji say the country's political party structure inhibits moderation.

"Maybe this will be a lesson to people on both sides that if you go too far, you're going to pay a price. I'm not quite so optimistic because I think in both political parties the base still has a lot of power," Tokaji said.

Galston was equally skeptical.

"The American people are looking for a point of equipoise in a political system that is very poorly structured to provide that," he says. "The voters in the middle – the moderates and independents – are sloshing back and forth from election to election hoping that somehow the political system will hit that sweet spot."