Post-Election Evaluation, 2010
This week’s elections resulted in big, big wins for Republicans. Though the G.O.P. didn’t retake the Senate, the Party won a majority of governorships and a huge number of House seats – the biggest partisan seat swing in the House since 1948.
Here are some of my initial thoughts on the election results, how to interpret them, and what will happen as a consequence:
1. It’s (still) the economy, stupid. Democratic strategist James Carville’s famous campaign slogan of 1992 is as true now as it was then – only this year, it applied to Democrats, not Republicans. Exit polls have shown that the economy was by far the top issue for voters, and Obama and congressional Dems did a poor job convincing voters that they made, or would make, economic conditions better. This, together with the fact that presidential parties almost always lose seats in Congress, is probably the single biggest explanation for the election results.
2. The Tea Party probably cost Republicans the Senate and may cost Mitch McConnell his sanity. Definitely Delaware and possibly Nevada would be Republican-held seats had conservatives not nominated flawed candidates. Meanwhile, McConnell will have to lead a party that includes both moderates (like Mark Kirk and Susan Collins) and folks like Rand “tea party tidal wave” Paul; Jim DeMint, who will doubtless try to flex his muscle as a self-proclaimed leader of conservative insurgents; and possibly Lisa Murkowski, who may feel embittered after being abandoned by her colleagues when she lost her primary election to the conservative candidate, Joe Miller.
3. Beware the mandate fallacy. Republicans are already proclaiming that the election means “the American people” want smaller government, lower taxes, a repeal of the health care law, etc. Uh…really? Consider this. First, many people – including some likely Obama supporters – didn’t vote in the election at all. Second, most voters are retrospective, voting based on judgments of the incumbent’s performance rather than the challenger’s promises (as Stanford professor Morris Fiorina argued in his book Retrospective Voting in American Elections.)
Finally, the extent to which voters are prospective, their true motives are often unclear and contradictory (as Walter Lippman cogently observed in his 1922 classic study Public Opinion). According to CNN’s exit poll from the election, voters believe that the top two priorities of Congress should be reducing the deficit (39%) and spending to create jobs (37%) – policy goals that will be difficult to reconcile.
If Democrats made the mistake in 2006 and 2008 of over-interpreting the “meaning” of election results, Republicans would be well advised not to do the same.
4. Battles over health care reform will continue. A revision, if not repeal, of the recent health care law is on the Republican’s congressional agenda, and ballot initiatives rejecting key elements of the recent law passed in Arizona and Oklahoma. These initiatives may go nowhere, but expect a court fight anyway. Plus, there’s the ongoing constitutional challenge against the law from several states. (Who knows – conservatives may decide that they like unelected judges after all.)
5. The FDR model of leadership may be better for enacting major laws than for winning elections. For decades, both parties have believed that unified control of government means following an assertive and partisan legislative agenda. There’s nothing wrong with using power to achieve policy goals per se, but it doesn’t seem to translate well into winning future elections, at least for Democrats (not only in 1994, but also in 1966 and arguably 1980, too). To be sure, Democrats were virtually guaranteed to lose seats in 2010, and perhaps Democrats just had bad luck: the economy was unlikely to get much better between 2008 and 2010, no matter whether the party pushed for an activist agenda or no. But it’s worth reconsidering whether a different governing agenda might have better helped the Democratic Party hold on to power.