What drives elections?
There are some ongoing conversations about how much of tomorrow's vote should be blamed on structural factors like the once-in-a-generation economic crisis and how much should be understood as a specific repudiation of President Obama and the Democrats. In some ways, I think that's a bit of a false choice: Tomorrow's results will be a specific repudiation of Obama and the Democrats even if they're driven by structural factors. The fact that it's the economy that has soured some voters toward Obama doesn't mean that the voters haven't actually soured toward Obama.
But it still leaves the question of whether there's much that Democrats could've done to avoid the wave. You often hear that if they'd just scaled back health-care reform, or done energy first, or governed from some mythical place called "the center," that all would be well. Or maybe they were felled by one of these 16, occasionally contradictory, strategic or political mistakes. But which one?
The following graph matches House elections on the national level to lower-house elections on the state level. The two track pretty neatly:
I think professional political pundits, or even just political junkies, would tell you there's not a whole lot of overlap between what Republican congressmen and Republican members of the California or Colorado legislature are doing at any given moment. But voters tend to sour on the incumbent party all at once, at all levels. That doesn't mean the voters aren't really trying to repudiate that party. But it does suggest that the specific strategies and choices of the party aren't being examined at a particularly granular level of detail.
In 2010, President Obama's party looks likely to lose big after successfully passing the stimulus, health-care reform and financial regulation, but failing to get unemployment down to normal levels. In 2006 and 2008, George W. Bush's party lost big after failing to pass Social Security reform and immigration reform, and after the public turned against the Iraq war. In 1994, Bill Clinton's party lost big after failing to pass health-care reform, but when the economy was improving. In 1982, Ronald Reagan's party lost big after passing major tax cuts, but failing to bring unemployment down to a normal level. There's a mix, in other words, of major losses after parties try and fail to do big things, after they try and succeed to do big things, and amid different sorts of economies.
In fact, over the course of the 20th century, quite a few presidents lost big -- which I'm defining as more than 40 seats -- in their first midterm, and if you realize that some of these losses were inflicted on a House minority (Reagan's 1982 midterm saw 29 seats vanish when Republicans only controlled 192 seats, making his loss quite large even though it seems, on the graph, quite small), it's hard to say that these first-term backlashes are particularly rare:
I'm certain that all of these parties could've prevented some of these losses, and maybe a few of them could've governed their way to gains. But I'm not certain what advice I'd give future presidents who've decided to govern so as to minimize damage to their congressional wing. Don't try big things? Or maybe don't try big things and fail? Or maybe don't get elected during a bad economy? Or possibly cancel your first midterm election?
One reason I don't like playing the pundit's game of offering strategic advice is that I don't believe anyone really has a handle on what works in American politics. I certainly don't. What we can say is there are certain patterns in American politics -- presidents tend to lose seats in their first midterm election, and the economy seems to drive a lot of votes -- and they tend to afflict lots of different presidents who seemed pretty capable at one point, and in many cases, won the next election and retired as masters of the political game. And since I think policy is a much less uncertain field, if I were in the House, I'd much rather lose my seat after making America a much better place than lose my seat after either failing in my efforts or never trying at all.
| November 1, 2010; 5:01 PM ET
Categories: 2010 Midterms
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