A protest vote not a Republican revolution

The real lesson of the US midterm elections was that voters have little faith in either party to solve America’s problems.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Topics USA

In President Obama’s own words, he and his fellow Democrats received a ‘shellacking’ in Tuesday’s midterm elections. His party lost control of the House of Representatives, as the Republicans gained 61 seats (at time of writing), the biggest swing since 1948. The Republicans also gained six seats in the Senate, reducing the Democrats’ majority significantly, and picked up six state governorships.

While now the attention shifts to the victorious Republicans, it is important to note that the midterm results primarily reflect a protest against the Democrats, rather than an endorsement of the Republicans.

Some Democrats are trying to console themselves by arguing that the cards were stacked against them. Parties in power often lose seats in midterm elections. And it would be hard for the Democrats to win in the midst of an economy that has yet to recover substantially, with unemployment stuck at 10 per cent.

Both those observations are true. But the scale of the vote against the Democrats showed that this election was a strong negative verdict on them. The Democrats lost so many seats, spread across many parts of the country, that it is clear that this was a national referendum.

It is also revealing to look at how they lost. Two key Democrat constituencies in 2008 – minorities and young people – did not turn out in significant numbers. The share of total ballots cast by young people fell from 18 per cent in 2008 to 11 per cent this year, a much larger decline than normal between presidential election years and midterm years. It is striking how much has changed: in 2008, youth were excited and campaigned for Obama; now they feel at best ambivalent, and largely passive. Obama’s furious, last-minute campus tours, and appearance on The Daily Show, clearly did not work.

The results also show the Democrats back to where they were in the mid-2000s: support restricted to the east and west coasts, and among the better-off. The Democrats were once known for having more support among the working class than the Republicans, but clearly no longer. As Joel Kotkin rightly notes, the Democrats lost because they are disconnected from the working class. The party continued to do well with the affluent ‘creative class’ around major coastal cities, including financial-sector employees, professionals, those working in high-end consumer industries, university employees and those in technology companies that depend increasingly on government subsidies. But blue-collar workers, especially whites in the inland areas and in suburbs, and those in the hard-hit manufacturing and construction sectors, have been trending away from the Democrats for some time, and in this midterm election appeared to desert them almost altogether.

On Tuesday night, the voters were signaling that they hold the Democrats responsible for what they have done in power over the past two years. The conventional wisdom says that it is due to their specific policies, but that is not clear at all. Exit polls showed that 33 per cent believe the stimulus package hurt the economy, but the same percentage thought it helped the economy, with the final third saying it made no difference. Likewise, polls showed that while 48 per cent want to repeal the Democrats’ healthcare law, 47 per cent want to either expand it or leave it as it is.

No, the discontent is much deeper than specific policies. Obama and the Democrats ‘own’ the economy and thus get the blame for the lack of true recovery. But even more importantly, there is an overriding sense of stagnation and lack of clear direction in the country. Nearly two-thirds of voters reported that they felt the country was off-track. Concerns about deficits are not about borrowing per se; they express the fact that people lack confidence that the economy will grow robustly in the future, creating the wealth to pay off the debts that are accumulating. Voters used Tuesday’s election to express their discontent.

The flipside of a negative verdict on the Democrats is not, however, evidence of strong support for the Republicans.

Since Obama’s election, the Republican strategy has been to obstruct the Democrats, sit tight, and hope that the country would turn against them. As the latest results show, this approach has yielded electoral gains. But it has come at a cost: the Republicans have not presented an alternative, and thus the vote does not create a mandate for any specific direction. Republican leaders claim that their results are due to their opposition to government spending, but they can hardly claim to be the party that would control government coffers, since they refuse to name a single programme they would cut.

Prior to the vote, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 45 per cent of those who favoured a Republican-controlled Congress said their vote was a protest against Obama and the Democrats. Exits polls found that a majority – 53 per cent – ‘disapproved’ of Republicans, the same percentage as Democrats. Positive views of both parties in Congress have languished at around 18-20 per cent, and it is hard to see the Republicans, now in the majority in the House, turning that around.

In other words, there is a crisis of the entire political class in the US, not just one party.

Moreover, the Republican coalition of business, social conservatives and Tea Party types is more divided than is often recognised. These divisions are likely to become more apparent the more that the Republicans are put on the spot to name policies and make decisions.

And speaking of the Tea Party, the results on Tuesday showed them to be not trailblazing as the media hype portrayed them. You would not know it from the tons of media attention, but most Republican candidates were not affiliated with the Tea Party. And some said they were pro-Tea Party, just to opportunistically gain some extra support. It was noticeable how Marco Rubio, the Senator-elect from Florida, flew the Tea Party banner at first, but then distanced himself from them after he won the primary.

On the night, the Tea Party could claim some victories, but they also blew some of the Senate seats in which Democrat defeat had seemed certain, as in Delaware and Nevada. In the event, the mixed Tea Party results made the Democrats look foolish for focusing so much attention on them. A Pew study found that the candidate who received the most media attention nationwide was Christine O’Donnell, the alleged former ‘witch’ and Tea Party candidate for the Senate in Delaware. Pre-election polls showed that she would lose big, and sure enough she did – revealing that it was a massive waste for the Democrats to focus on her. Meanwhile, mild-mannered, non-Tea Party Republicans like former Bush trade representative Rob Portman were winning handily.

Of course, the size of the swing to the Republicans is noteworthy, but it is important to examine what it represents, and to put the results in historical perspective.

After the Democrats captured a majority in Congress in 2006, and then the presidency in 2008, many saw fit to announce the dawn of a ‘liberal realignment’. Clearly, Tuesday’s vote has put an end to all talk of that. The electoral map now looks similar to what existed in 2004, before the Democrats’ emergence. Yet what is even more remarkable is the volatility in recent years. American electoral politics have now seen three major shifts within the past two decades: first, the Republicans’ taking control of congress in 1994 during Clinton’s presidency; second, the Democrats’ gaining a congressional majority during George W Bush’s administration in 2006; and now, the Republicans winning back the House with Obama in office.

What explains this greater fluidity? The fact that voters are no longer as loyal to political parties. The number of voters identifying themselves as ‘independent’ has grown, to about 40 per cent of the population, more than either major party. And even belonging to a party has been hollowed out of significance. It was notable that even Obama was not loyal, as he backed the Republican-turned-independent Lincoln Chafee in the contest for governor of Rhode Island race over Democrat Frank Caprio, leading Caprio to say that Obama ‘can take his endorsement and really shove it’. (For the record, Chafee won.)

Given that parties no longer stand for much in the way of ideology, and that the electorate is willing to switch between them so rapidly, we should be cautious in drawing too many strong conclusions from the latest midterm results. Just as 2006 and 2008 did not mark the start of a long period of liberal realignment, 2010 is unlikely to produce a long era of Republican dominance either.

Unfortunately, what is on the immediate horizon is not inspiring. On one side, the Democrats, after Obama promised ‘transformational’ change, look like they will draw the conclusion that they were too ambitious. In reality, they were not ambitious enough, and did not have the courage of their convictions to defend what they had implemented. Obama’s response to the election outcome was to turn inwards and see it as another one of his teachable moments, saying ‘This is a growth process’. As one commentator said: ‘That may have been a first in American politics: an electoral disaster as therapy.’

On the other side, it appears that the Republican approach of offering no alternative will continue. Mitch McConnell, the Republicans’ leader in the Senate, says that, after the midterms, ‘The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.’ Yes, the Republicans want to be back in the White House, but statements like McConnell’s beg the question: in order to do what? The risk for the Republicans in the short term is that their midterm victories will shift the spotlight away from Obama and towards them. And if that happens, they will be exposed for the empty suits they are.

The masses remain unconvinced of either party. They did not vote for Obama and the Democrats two years ago because they had suddenly become progressive socialists, nor did they switch allegiance to the Republicans because they are now hardcore conservatives (or crazies, in the eyes of some). There will be no real stability in American politics until the concerns of voters are finally addressed.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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Topics USA