What’s in a Number? Why the Election Had Nothing to Do With Net Neutrality

Many tech policy enthusiasts would love to live in a world where citizens cast their votes to send a message about telecom policy. But we don’t live in that world… unless you ask telecom consultant Scott Cleland. Cleland blogged yesterday that “Free Press’ version of net neutrality was completely repudiated in the election.” While it may seem obvious that the results had nothing to do with telecom policy, Cleland cites a convenient statistic to try and show otherwise.

95 Democratic challengers (i.e. not members of Congress) signed a pledge to support net neutrality, and they all lost this Tuesday. If these 95 challengers were a random sampling of Democrats in a normal election year, this might carry some weight. But there's another 95; 95% of the House challengers who supposedly lost because of Net Neutrality come from districts that lean Republican.

The House candidates who “lost because of Net Neutrality” lost in districts that are far more “red” than average. In other words, they would have been expected to lose in a regular election year, and by a wide margin (nine points on average). In a wave election, they simply had no chance; that’s why they had time to make a pledge about a 3rd tier issue the week before the election. Victories in these races would have been shocking, since Democrats only managed to knock off two Republican incumbents in the entire House. These challengers were destined to lose the day they signed up to run, years before they ever heard of this pledge.

The statistics game is fun because it lets you tell whatever story you’re being paid to tell. Guess how many actual members of Congress who signed a pro-net neutrality letter lost re-election? None. In contrast, voters said goodbye to over 33% of the sitting Democratic members who told the FCC not to act. Here we have PROOF of…nothing. The story of the election was very simple; if you were a Democrat, you were probably going to lose. News outlets that contributed to the notion that this was a referendum on telecom policy should probably do a bit more research before parroting industry talking points.

Was the irrelevance of net neutrality in this week's election a sign that the issue doesn't “have significant grassroots political support” as Cleland claims? Of course not. This election was about jobs, unemployment, and jobs. A poll before the election found that only 9% of voters considered terrorism to be one of the election’s two most important issues, but terrorism remains an issue of vital importance and interest. An election in a recession will always be a referendum on the economy. Voters (and competitive candidates) simply didn't spare a moment's thought for anything else.

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