Excerpts from Dr. Alan Draper on the 2010 elections

Below, I offer some perspective on the 2010 midterm congressional elections. Much of what I offer leaves out what I call the blocking and tackling of elections:  Stuff like the Tea Party, the economy, and the daily thrum of news.  Just because I don’t say much about these issues doesn’t mean I don’t think they are important.  Imagine trying to describe why a team won a football game without commenting on how well they block and tackle.  It’s the essence of the game.  But I’m going to put them to the side because we are familiar with them.  What I want to do is try to get a sense of the rhythm of the game as opposed to being absorbed by its play by play. 
Regarding the 2010 results, there is no dismissing the extent of the Democrats defeat, where they lost 61+ House seats, 6 Senate seats, 11gubernatorial offices, and 19 state houses.  I must confess that I was initially in denial, and tried to pretend that the election simply marked a market correction in terms of giving back the 55 seats the Democrats won in 2006 and 2008.  But after about a week, reality caught up with me.  What happened?

First, we need to appreciate that heading into the 2010 midterm election Democrats were punching above their weight in Congress, that is, they were overrepresented in terms of their electoral support, with a 31seat majority in the House and 9 seat majority in the Senate.  I say they were overrepresented, punching above their weight, because:

     1.  There are twice as many self-identified conservatives than liberals in US.

    2.  Gallup polls reveal an electorate that is split pretty evenly between the parties in terms of voter identification.

In other words, as the election approached, the equilibrium in the electorate was more tilted towards the Republicans than was actually reflected in the balance of power between the parties in Congress.

Moreover, Democrats came into the election more exposed than the Republicans.  Democrats held 47 seats won by Bush in 2004 and McCain in 2008, that is, in basically Republican districts, while Democrats held only six seats that Kerry and Obama won in 2004 and 2008, respectively.  That is, Democrats entered the election having to defend more seats in traditional Republican districts than Republicans had to defend in traditional Democratic districts.
Add to this:

    1.  high unemployment that the Obama presidency, rightly or wrongly, owns;

    2.  traditional losses for the incumbent party in midterm elections;

    3.  the emergence of the Tea Party to energize the Republican base;

    4.  the efforts of Fox News to delegitimate President Obama;

    5.  large amounts of unlimited and unreported campaign money flowing to Republican candidates;

And you have a pretty challenging environment for the Democrats in 2010.  And the results confirm this.  It was what political scientists call an “aligning election,” in the sense of districts voted according to their normal patterns.  Indeed the 2010 electoral map looks very similar to the 2000 and 2004 electoral maps, with Democrats continuing to hold their base on the West and East coasts, and Republicans polling well inland, especially in the South, Plains, and Mountain States. The only part of the country that did not vote true to form was the Midwest, which went more heavily Republican than normal.  It was results from the Midwest that made the election such a blowout victory for the Republicans where they won 3 Senate seats from the Democrats, as well as 5 Democratic-held House seats in Ohio, two in Indiana, three in Illinois, two in Wisconsin, three in Michigan.   I might add there were notable takeaways in Mid-Atlantic states, too, especially in New York and Pa. But these were less consequential as they simply returned the party balance in these states to where they had been in 2002.

Just two aspects of the vote that caught my eye, which can be labeled by their Hollywood movie names: “The Vanishing Dixiecrat” and “The Return of the Marginals”

1. The Vanishing Dixiecrat: The election marked the final chapter of the Republican realignment of the South.  In 1961, when Barack Obama was born, every representative and Senator from the Deep South was a white Democrat.  Today, the only white Democrat left standing from the Deep South is John Barrow from Georgia.  Arkansas, Miss, Alabama, and Louisiana, have no white Democratic members of Congress.  The only Democratic representatives from those states, except for Barrow, are black representatives from majority-minority districts.  Republicans control 94 of the 131 southern congressional districts in the House, 71 percent, the highest total since 1868, during Reconstruction. To someone who views the South as the tail that wags the dog of American politics, these results are stunning, especially when seen in historical perspective.
2.  The Return of the Marginals: For years, political scientists have complained about the ‘vanishing marginals,” the lack of competitive elections in the House, that so few seats are actually in play each election, leading to a high winning percentage for incumbents. In 2002 and 2004, 98 percent of all House incumbents won reelection.  As recently as 2004 only 7 percent of House members won with less than 55 percent of the vote.  But since 2006, the situation has changed.  In 2006, 22 House members lost, and in 2008 23 incumbents were defeated at the polls.  In 2010, 53 incumbents were defeated and another four lost in the primaries, making the incumbent reelection rate the lowest since 1970.  More seats are changing hands, more partisan turnover is occurring at the district level because congressional races have been nationalized, meaning elections turn more on how voters feel about the national performance of political parties than about particular candidates.  The advantages of incumbency are less powerful than they once were because voters are using a different lens through which to view congressional performance.

Let me now turn to exit poll results:  Were the results a repudiation of Obama’s program?  In a national exit poll, voters were split on health care.  But what was more interesting was that the issue was of low salience to voters.  Few voters entering the voting booth viewed health care as a significant issue.  And indeed, there is little evidence that members of Congress were punished for their vote on the health care or stimulus bill. Democrats who voted for both bills lost, as did those Democrats who voted against them.  Simply having a capital D in front of your name on the ballot cost you more votes than how voted on those two bills.

But the most interesting result to me from the exit polls was the one that asked voters who they blamed for the economy.  More respondents blamed Wall Street than either President Bush or President Obama.  That’s not the surprising part.  What was surprising was that those who blamed Wall Street were more likely to vote Republican by a 56 to 42 percent margin.  This is unexpected because Republicans are generally perceived to be more friendly with and accommodating to Wall Street than Democrats.  It may be that the bankers who caused the crisis came out fine while most Americans did not, cost Obama and the Democrats credibility with voters.  Voters’ sense of fairness was violated and they punished the only party they could. 

Where does 2010 midterm election leave us?  It leaves us worse off, with a more dysfunctional government, than before the election.  I’m not saying this because we have switched from unified to divided government, in which the parties control different branches of the government.  I say the results will be more frustrating to Americans because the election moved both congressional delegations to their poles and not the center.  The election moved the Democratic delegation in Congress to the left, as one-half of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats lost their seats.  Similarly, the election moved the Republican congressional delegation to the right under the pressure of Tea Party primary challenges.  The new Congress will be more partisan, less civil, more ideologically coherent, and less able to forge compromise than the Congress it replaced

The results reveal an American electorate that is impatient, wants solutions to the issues the country faces, and is not too picky as to who provides them.  In 2006 it threw the bums out in terms of Republican control of Congress.  In 2008 it threw the bums out in terms of Republican control of the presidency.  And in 2010, it threw the bums out in terms of Democratic control of Congress.  It is an American electorate that is still looking for “change we can believe in.”

Alan Draper