Magazine | November 29, 2010, Issue

Political Economy

It’s your policies that were the problem, Mr. President

On November 2, Democrats suffered one of the worst midterm beatings in American history. The 65 House seats that they are now set to surrender represent the largest net loss a party has endured since 1938. If we measure the midterm election in terms of the percentage of seats lost, we will have to go back to 1922 to find a worse midterm. And if Democrats end up losing one more seat — only a couple hundred votes in California’s 11th congressional district, where at press time thousands of ballots were still being counted, stand between Democrats and this eventuality — they would lose a larger percentage of their caucus than any party since the Republicans of 1910.

The Democrats are not using this defeat as an opportunity for reflection on the popularity of their policies. President Obama has flatly rejected the notion that the midterm election was about him or his agenda. Instead, he said, it represented a reaction to the poor state of the economy and reflected his inability to sell his policies to the voters. Other Democrats have echoed this theme.

The idea that President Obama and the Democrats did an inadequate job of explaining their policies is implausible, given the numerous speeches, television appearances, and rallies our famously articulate president offered up during the last year. His economic explanation is more credible — at first blush: Economic factors figure prominently in almost every political-science model of elections. But a deeper look at the data suggests that this was largely a referendum on the president’s policies.

There’s no doubt that the poor economy hurt the Democrats. The major post–World War II recessions (1946, 1958, 1974, and 1982) have all been accompanied by significant midterm losses for the president’s party, and there was no reason that this year should have been different. When you add in the fact that Democrats occupied 73 seats leaning toward Republicans and had dozens of freshmen and sophomores as a result of the large advances they made in the 2006 and 2008 elections, large losses were nearly inevitable.

But history also shows that midterm elections aren’t always about the economy. In 1994, the economy was in excellent shape, but the Democrats were pummeled as punishment for their attempted overreach on health care. In 2002, the country was at the very beginning of a sluggish recovery, yet the Republican party’s foreign-policy successes were enough to propel the GOP to a larger majority in Congress. The reversal of those foreign-policy fortunes precipitated a reversal of the GOP’s political fortunes, and the party lost seats in 2006 despite an economic recovery.

Even when the party in power has lost seats during a recession, those losses have varied in magnitude substantially. The last time we had an election-year unemployment rate approaching 10 percent was in 1982. That year, Ronald Reagan’s Republicans lost only 26 House seats. Michael Barone, then a Democrat, calculated that about half of those losses were directly attributable to the 1982 redistricting, which greatly favored Democrats. This year, the Democrats’ losses are more than double what Republicans lost in 1982, and there is no redistricting to blame: Democrats actually had a stronger hand than Republicans did in the last redistricting cycle. Instead, the magnitude of their losses is most reminiscent of the Republicans’ shellacking in 1974, when the midterm elections were held just months after President Nixon resigned. The Republican base refused to turn out, and, amid scandal and a deep recession, a quarter of the Republicans’ already small caucus was vaporized.  Which is to say, the present recession plus Obama’s policies yielded a result that is comparable to the 1974 recession plus the near-impeachment and disgraced resignation of a president.

For those who are more quantitatively inclined, political-science models suggest that the Democrats lost more seats that the economic situation alone would account for. Jonathan Chait, a senior editor of The New Republic, wrote a lengthy blog post seeking to preempt any suggestion that Obama’s agenda was to blame for the midterm losses by detailing a model from political scientist Douglass Hibbs, which predicted that Democrats would lose 45 House seats based solely on the economy and the number of seats that they had picked up over the previous two elections. But the Democrats lost a lot more than 45 seats. It is equally important to remember that Hibbs’s prediction was on the high end of the predictive models. Overall, these models predicted losses for Democrats ranging from the 20s through the low 50s. Those models that focused on the effects of economic factors were on the low end of that range. In fact, not a single major political-science model predicted Democratic losses in excess of 60 seats.

#page#We don’t really have to perform complex regression analyses to explain this. We can just look at the results. Going into this election, 73 Democrats represented districts that leaned toward Republicans. Almost all of the Republicans’ pickups were among these 73 districts. Once the carnage was over, only 16 such Democrats survived. Eight of them had voted yea on the health-care bill while another eight voted against it. In total, the health-care nays fared much better in Republican districts: More than half of them survived, while about 80 percent of the pro-Obamacare Democrats in Republican districts were retired. And that 80 percent doesn’t even include Democrats who voted yea, saw their reelect numbers plummet, and decided it would be a good time to retire.

We can also just look at the polling data. The CNN exit poll showed that 52 percent of voters thought that President Obama’s policies would “hurt the country.” These voters pulled the lever for Republicans at an 89 percent rate. Fifty-six percent felt that that “government is doing too much,” while only 38 percent felt that the “government should do more.” Republicans won 77 percent of those in the former category. About 65 percent of voters felt the stimulus had either hurt the economy or made no difference.

On top of that, 74 percent of voters were angry or dissatisfied with the government; while voters did list the economy as the most important issue, they were more likely to support a Republican program of tax cuts and deficit reduction than they were to support the president’s prescription of more spending. And perhaps most damning for Obama’s explanation of the election results, only 23 percent of voters blamed the president for the state of the economy. They were more likely to blame George W. Bush (29 percent of voters, of whom Republicans won 14 percent) or Wall Street (35 percent of voters, of whom Republicans won 56 percent).

Ultimately, this election was about more than isolated events. Like the 2006 election for Republicans, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. In 2006, it didn’t matter how liberal or conservative a Republican was — even Republicans who had voted against the Iraq War went down. The election became so heavily nationalized that decisive numbers of voters in swing districts simply decided that they could not safely elect any Republicans to Congress. The Republican and Democratic bases turned out in near-equal numbers in those districts, but independents strongly favored the Democrats, so the Republicans suffered a near-obliteration.

The same dynamic seems to have been in play this year. If the election had been only about the economy, we would have expected to see a much more uniform decline in the Democrats’ vote share across different districts. Instead, the decline was uneven, reflecting the conservative/liberal divide. We saw a heavy correlation between how strongly Republican a Democrat’s district was and how much that Democrat’s vote share declined relative to 2008 — an indicator that political concerns were at work at least as much as economic ones. In other words, in 2010, voters in conservative districts and conservative-leaning swing districts made the same calculation that their liberal counterparts in liberal-leaning districts made in 2006 and 2008: that they simply could no longer afford to elect members of the other party to Congress, because it would result in more of the same distasteful policies. It’s not just the economy, it’s the philosophy. And since the Democrats don’t seem inclined to reevaluate their policies, it will likely be a long time before these voters entrust them with such power again.

– Mr. Trende is a senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics.

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