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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:

houseseatloss-thumb-475x357-61.png

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:

Thumbnail image for first-term_presidential_midterms_since_1900.png

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.

By Ezra Klein  | November 1, 2010; 5:01 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Next: Reconciliation

Comments

"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."

That this even needs to be said is endlessly puzzling to me.

Posted by: klautsack | November 1, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Can Dylan, aka The Graphics-Master, redo the second graph to show losses as a percent of the party's previous seats, so that 29 seats lost by the GOP in 1982 seems more in context (29/192 = 15%, but 29/260, as an example, = 11%)?

Posted by: ctown_woody | November 1, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

"... if they'd just scaled back health-care reform, or done energy first,..."

Are you frikkin' kidding me? You think rearranging the horrible jobs-killing legislation order would have made everything OK with the voters?

Earth to Ezra: Obama was elected on a mandate to fix jobs. That's what people wanted. Instead, the Democrats et al decided this was their opportunity to install the Socialist agenda they have been having wet dreams about for decades...ObamaCare, Cap 'n Tax, etc.

People want jobs, not politicians that "don't want to waste a crisis". Democrats are now paying the price for their audacity, elitism and simply ignoring the people.

Good riddance and good luck.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | November 1, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

The irony is that in all likelihood, while Republicans say that the election is a response to Democratic overreach, if Republicans didn't abuse the filibuster and actually allowed the Democrats to overreach, the Dems would probably be doing better due to a better economy.

Posted by: DDAWD | November 1, 2010 6:54 PM | Report abuse

It is a very odd sort of repudiation, because it repudiates a _fictional_ Obama, one who raised their taxes, instead of lowered them, whose economy has been shrinking instead of growing, whose troop levels in Iraq have not declined, who has established Death Panels and undermined Medicare, who initially promulgated TARP, and whose TARP money then has not been repaid, who sold out consumers in FinReg, who gave students no help with education costs, who has not benefited the energy economy, and on and on.

Who would _not_ repudiate such an Obama? This is an electorate that would have embraced the actual Obama, if only they had heard about him.

That is the long term saving grace of this abominable election day.

Posted by: DavidKolodney | November 1, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

If Federal and state elections move in lock step--in the aggregate, I would be interested in seeing a breakdown in elections where states are doing well, country isnt, and vice versa. Probably happens less frequently.

If same trends hold, in states where exceptions apply, the local guys stay in "good" times, and the national guys go in "bad."

Lets see it.

Posted by: BradF1 | November 1, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

In light of your interesting comment: "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", could you show us the graph ("First-term presidential midterms since 1900") recalibrated as a percentage of the president's party's number of seats in the house?
That would be a more useful comparison.

Posted by: grhabyt | November 1, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse

DDawd wrote:

"The irony is that in all likelihood, while Republicans say that the election is a response to Democratic overreach, if Republicans didn't abuse the filibuster and actually allowed the Democrats to overreach, the Dems would probably be doing better due to a better economy."

You need to speak to the dead man. The number one proponent for the filibuster was Robert Byrd. Were it not for his obstinacy, the Senate might have changed it's rules years ago.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 1, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

Davidekolodny wrote:

"It is a very odd sort of repudiation, because it repudiates a _fictional_ Obama, one who raised their taxes, instead of lowered them, whose economy has been shrinking instead of growing, whose troop levels in Iraq have not declined, who has established Death Panels and undermined Medicare, who initially promulgated TARP, and whose TARP money then has not been repaid, who sold out consumers in FinReg, who gave students no help with education costs, who has not benefited the energy economy, and on and on."

Ok, one by one:

1)Not Obama's fault, Harry Reid's fault, but as of January everyone's taxes will go up far more than they were cut. Not doing something about the expriring tax cut was a huge mistake.

2)Obama has been good for the market, but unfortunately has little control over jobs. His mistake in that department was having the hapless Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein making excessively rosy forecasts instead of forecasting the end of the world and getting the benefit of it not beinng so. It's not just what happens, but how you tell the story.

3)troop declines in Iraq have been overshadowed by problems in Afghanistan, so no net plus there

4)no, of course no death panels but the healthcare legislation rests on a fictional financial foundation, which is all too obvious.

5)TARP not in any way Obama's fault, but no the money has not been repaid, nor will it ever be. It's just a shell game. Again, not his fault at all.

6) fin reg fiasco 100% Obama's fault because he waited almost 18 months to address the most important issue of the decade, and came up with a virtual zero in terms of real regulation of the industry.

7)He did what he could about education costs, but let's be real this cost problem is an issue that is beyond the presidency to solve

8) the president has had no effect on energy at all thank God, because cap and trade never got off the ground. This was one case of failure to get what he wanted creating success for him overall.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 1, 2010 11:29 PM | Report abuse

--*Obama was elected on a mandate to fix jobs.*--

If politicians knew how, and wanted, to "fix jobs", they wouldn't be politicians.

Anyone expecting politicians to "fix jobs" via government action is more than a few bricks shy of a load.

The only things government can do is take the citizenry's wealth, and squash the citizenry's freedom, and neither of those things has ever created a job. Except for politicians and their cronies, of course.

Posted by: msoja | November 2, 2010 12:17 AM | Report abuse

And yet more piddle from the paddler. What a manly manly man he is.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 2, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

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