Politics & Policy

Why the Democrats Lost

(Mark Aplet/Dreamstime)
The Republicans’ key challenge for 2016 is wage stagnation.

Why did the Democrats lose?

It wasn’t Obamacare.

While 49 percent of voters said the health-care law “went too far,” just 25 percent of voters picked health care as their most important issue in this election, and they broke for the Democrats 59 percent to 39 percent, according to exit polls. Fears of Ebola and terrorism and a generalized feeling of insecurity were a factor, but 45 percent of voters said the economy was their most important issue.

And here is the biggest red flag for Republicans moving forward: After six years of Obama, these voters broke for the GOP by just 2 points, 48 percent to 50 percent.

After every election, whether Republicans win or lose, social issues get a disproportionate share of the “problem defining” blame.  But the GOP’s biggest branding problem, even in victory, is clearly the economy. GOP candidates are not yet naming the biggest problem voters are facing: wage stagnation and a pervasive decline in the average household’s standard of living.

In 1999, inflation-adjusted median household income peaked at $56,080. The Bush era was not a good one for the middle class; still, by 2007, people were only slightly worse off, at $55,627, than they had been under Clinton. In 2008, the year of the financial panic, median household income dropped to $53,644. Since then, incomes have stagnated. In June 2013, median household income logged in at $52,100. Real income for the middle class is down 6 percent under Obama and even more since its peak, 15 years ago under Bill Clinton.

And of course our official inflation measure undercounts the stuff the average family making $50,000 a year spends its money on. Male wages have been in decline for even longer, and the average family’s strategy of having fewer kids and putting wives (or live-in girlfriends) to work to compensate has run its course, in terms of being able to compensate.

For more than a decade Americans have been losing ground financially, and the GOP has yet to address the issue.

The Democrats offer increases in the minimum wage. While popular, including among Republicans, this is not a very good answer, since most workers do not have or want minimum-wage jobs. But at least it is a policy prescription that addresses voters’ key concern.

What is the Republican answer moving forward? Coming up with one is the key to victory, in 2016 and beyond.

— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.

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