james debate
james debate

Saturday 6 November 2010

Hello all, it's your friendly neighborhood analyst here and that rarest of all things, a political moderate. And so draws to a close one of the most bizarre election cycles in recent memory. From wildly divergent pre-election polls to comic candidates and even a touch of witchcraft, this election had it all. It's seen a record influx of corporate money and a deluge of dirty campaigning, and for political junkies like myself it has all been fantastically entertaining.

midterm election 2010

Despite this the election itself turned out being a surprisingly predictable affair, and indeed my own personal projections (particularly in the Senate and Governors races) were almost all called correctly. This article presents my analysis of this election cycle, starting with the expectations, going on to the results, and finally discussing the aftermath and the future.


So going into this election, the President's Democratic party enjoyed large majorities in both chambers of congress, as well as a majority of state houses and legislatures. However, a high unemployment and malaise amongst traditionally pessimistic liberal voters had resulted in low favorable ratings. But this is more than matched by the Republican party's own even lower favorable ratings, while the Democratic registration advantage has surprisingly actually increased since 2008.

So how did the two parties attempt to succeed in spite of their record low popularity? The Republicans hit upon the clever strategy of running under a different name, the "Tea Party". Mike Steele raised some eyebrows when he announced that the RNC would not be running a get out the vote initiative this year, or giving the Republican candidates the kind of funding that they are used to; but as it turned out this money was all being poured into the Tea Party instead in an attempt to avoid the toxic GOP name. It honestly makes you wonder why no political party has tried this trick before.

The Democrats meanwhile had a very different strategy: to ignore polls, historic midterm trends and instead put all their eggs into turning out the Obama base from 2008 that gave them such a landslide victory (ie. young voters and minorities), as opposed to voters who normally turn out for midterms (ie. everyone other than those demographics). It was a risky strategy that Obama himself insisted upon, drawing criticisms from many congressional Democrats who suspected that Obama was thinking more about maintaining the lines of communication with his likely electorate for 2012 than their prospects in 2010.

Now in terms of real electoral math, it's a fact that the President's party almost always suffers losses at the midterm elections; in fact the average opposition party gains for midterm election since the 1930s is fairly hefty at almost 30 seats in the house and 6 seats in the senate, and in more than half of the last 12 midterms the House has swung by 48+ seats. On top of this you have a Democratic party with an unprecedentedly large majority, and therefore many vulnerable seats in red states/districts and more seats in general to lose in a year in which both parties' popularity is at record lows. Add to this the worst economic conditions since the great depression and that makes for some pretty sobering electoral math for Democrats.

It is no wonder then that many top pollsters went into the election predicting record breaking House losses of 70-80+ seats and 8-9 in the Senate with a chance of taking both chambers of Congress. Our own predictions had the Republicans making gains of about 70 seats in the House, and 4 in the Senate. But as it turns out this is not what happened.


In the House, Republicans made massive gains of 60 seats. This was largely down to conservatives retaking the midwest, an area where Republicans normally perform well, but prior to the election had become unusually Democratic during the liberal sweeps over the past 6 years. It wasn't quite the historic 80 seat massacre that some had predicted, but it was pretty emphatic nonetheless.

Meanwhile in the Senate it was a slightly more disappointing night for Republicans as Democrats held on to the majority and outperformed polls considerably in a number of races. At the time of writing the Republicans have gained 5 seats in the Senate so far for a total of 46, actually below average, and certainly less than one would have expected from looking at all the electoral factors running against Democrats as described earlier.

In reliably liberal parts of the country Democrats actually performed better than usual at midterms, in particular in California and New York, where I'm sure I'm not the only one disappointed at the gubernatorial loss of Jimmy McMillan from the Rent is 2 Dam High party. Andrew Cuomo of course won that race against the batshit insane Paladino, whose concession speech involved threatening the victor with a baseball bat. Cuomo will go down in history now, whatever happens, as the only Democratic candidate ever endorsed by Rupert Murdoch's conservative rag the New York Post.

Certain races, like Illinois and Pennsylvania, were much closer than polls had predicted, with the Republicans clinging to narrow 2% margins in order to prevent a more comfortable Democratic majority. So while they ended up with an average night in the Senate, it is interesting to see just how close the Republicans came to having a pretty poor night indeed.

For all the attention on the Senate and House, arguably the most important races took place in the state houses, where the GOP won the gubernatorial battles in swing states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania by razor thin margins. Again, these races were much closer than they were expected to be, but having won them the Republicans have something of a boost when it comes to redistricting next year, and when rallying local voters in 2012.


It's far too easy it seems for the media to get caught up in asking the wrong questions, describing this year's election as a Government takeover by the GOP, when in reality they now control about 1/6 of the Government. For the most part these results are entirely what one would expect based on historical precedent and the current dynamics of political discourse, perhaps in the case of the Senate and Governors' races even a little kinder than the Democrats had any right to expect. The House, however, was a sweep of titanic proportions. And so the questions that should be asked following this election are why did the Republicans over-perform in the House, and why didn't they do so well elsewhere?

Exit Polls
To get an idea of what went through the minds of the voters on election day we'll look at some of the exit polling:
- Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming message from voters is that they need jobs.
- Two thirds of all voters on Tuesday said that the Economy was the reason for their vote
- Almost 40% said the number 1 priority for the new Congress should be jobs
- A whopping 86% of voters are worried about the economy next year.

A cursory look at the demographics will also tell you that this was not a favorable turnout for Democrats, with only 11% of the voters aged under 30, and 1 in 4 aged over 65. In addition an incredible 78% of voters were white. These demographics are typical of a midterm election, and they're also groups that traditionally vote Republican.

Democratic Strategy
One has to wonder then about the Democratic strategy for this election, the focusing of so much effort on atypical midterm voters that has caused such consternation among congressional Democrats. It is worth noting that in the one race where the Democrat broke with the President and OFA's strategy, Senate majority leader Harry Reid the Democrat ended up winning handsomely, outperforming polls by as much as 10%. Reid's insistence on sending his famous ground operation after more typical midterm voters paid off, and very real questions can be asked of whether the President in effect sold out his own party in order to gee up his youth and minority base.

Money has also played a big part in this year's election following the contentious Citizen's United ruling which stated that corporations can now anonymously donate infinite sums of cash to curry the favor of whichever politician they like. It doesn't take a deep look to see how this undermines the level playing field of Democracy, but that's besides the point here. The story of this election has been the vast, record breaking sums of cash being injected into these races, mostly as it turns out for Republican candidates.

There has also been a lot of talk about the effect of propaganda such as Fox News and the dangers of an uninformed electorate. Without a doubt this has had an effect; for example polls continue to show that only a small number of people actually know what's in the health care reform bill, and that when you tell them what's in the bill the American public supports the reform by about 73%. Similar polls show that most Americans are unaware that Obama has actually lowered taxes (one of the largest tax cuts in history) rather than raised them, that Bush rather than Obama bailed out the banks, and that job creation has actually improved significantly since the stimulus passed.

However irresponsible the right wing news networks have been in propagating these falsehoods, I don't blame them for this. I don't blame the public either for being uniformed. Blame must go to the Democratic party, for the burden of informing the public rests on them and them alone. The White House, as well as the Democratic party at large, is full of dead wood and inept communicators, and it is largely their fault that they have lost control of the political discourse.

That being said, exit polls show that this misinformation did not seem to have a whole lot of effect on the outcome of this election, as I'll demonstrate in the next section of this article where we bust a few popular election 2010 myths which are simply not supported by the voters' own polling responses.

But first let’s attempt to answer the second question: why didn't the Republicans fare so well outside of the House elections? The depressing answer that mainstream Republicans are starting to accept is that the extreme Tea Party candidates most likely cost them the Senate. The Tea Party challenges turned what should have been easy Republican pick ups like Delaware, Nevada and Colorado into Democratic wins, and even deep red states like Alaska and Kentucky were uncharacteristically competitive. As it turned out, Marco Rubio was the only Tea Party candidate who ended up performing well, and he spent most of the general election distancing himself from the movement and benefiting from the two Democratic candidates splitting the majority of the vote between them.

They don't want to admit it in public, but while the Tea Party has proven very effective at rallying the base and winning in more specific local races where the party can send extreme candidates to extreme districts, they seem to have incredible difficulty gaining the support of independents and constituents in an entire state. This bodes very badly for 2012 if the Tea Party remains so prominent in the party, and it is no wonder then that the GOP is preparing a big "stop the Tea Party" campaign now that they're done using them to regain the House. A Civil War in the GOP has been inevitable since 2008, and it's going to be interesting to follow the outcome.

Midterm Mythbusting:

As usual, there is an inordinate amount of crap coming from the talk-holes of both political parties, some of which is so completely disconnected from the reality of what the voters themselves actually said on Tuesday that I think it's only right that I devote a section of this analysis to mythbusting.

Republicans: This election was a vote against Barack Obama
Based on what? The fact that they voted against congressional Democrats? According to exit polls, that is in the words of the voters themselves, only 37% of voters said that their vote was specifically in opposition to the President. An equivalent number said that their vote was intended as a sign of support for Obama, and most people simply said that Obama had absolutely no effect on their vote. In addition, most voters did not blame Obama for the state of the economy, he came third behind Wall Street and Bush. Wishful thinking by Republicans with an eye on 2012 already.

Democrats: voters don't see more tax cuts as essential
Half true, but misleading. Only 18% of Tuesday's voters said they want tax cuts to be a priority, but that does not mean they don't want them. One of the other choices on this exit poll was "jobs" so really, did you expect many people to say something other than jobs is a priority?

Republicans: This election was a vote against Health Care Reform
This is another piece of empty campaigning from the Republicans. Only 18% of voters on Tuesday said that the recently passed healthcare reform bill was a factor in their vote, and amazingly, of that 18% more than half voted Democratic. In addition, nothing like a majority favor repeal of the bill, and a convincing majority either want to leave the bill the way it is or expand it further. These numbers echo what most polls on the subject show, that approval and disapproval numbers are about even, and support for full repeal is very low. These numbers certainly are nowhere near enough for Republicans to run on this issue in 2012 unless they are completely deluded, but undoubtedly they recognise the rallying effect it has on a small proportion of their base and will keep pushing it for show (at least until it starts hurting them, according to these exit polls it may have already!). It is also worth noticing that all the Democrats who opposed healthcare reform lost this election, whereas the progressive caucus which survived almost entirely unscathed all supported it.

Democrats: all this election shows us is that voters are unhappy about jobs
Yeah you wish, as already discussed there was a whole lot wrong with the Democrats' approach to this election. The liberal base in particular didn't even bother turning up, so frustrated are they with your incessant concessions to the opposition party.

Republicans: Obama's 2008 voters are switching Republican
A big whopper alright. Of the people who voted on Tuesday having voted for Obama in 2008, only 13% voted Republican. Considering not many of Obama's voters showed up this year, that's a bit of a stretch to say the least. Indeed, 1 in 10 of McCain's 2008 voters switched to the Democrats in this election, essentially the same conversion rate of what was probably a much larger group in this electorate, so absolutely no evidence for this claim.

But we finish with perhaps the biggest load of crap of all:

Republicans: This election was a big victory for the Tea Party.
This seems to be the de facto narrative for this election, at how the Tea Party has taken control of the country and revitalised the Republican party. Well as it turns out, only 32% of Tea Party candidates for Congress actually won, in a year where Republicans won almost every race. In addition, most people seem to agree that the Tea Party cost the GOP the Senate, with most of their candidates losing races that they really should have won. If all that is not enough, exit polls show that only 22% of Tuesday's voters voted in support of the Tea Party, while a similar 17% voted in opposition to the Tea Party. But overwhelmingly a majority of Tuesday's voters said that they simply did not care about the Tea Party one way or the other! It can perhaps be argued that the Tea Party succeeded in bringing down Democrats, but it seems to have done little to actually boost the GOP itself.

And of course, both parties are claiming that exit polls show that the other party is less popular than theirs. Both parties are ridiculously unpopular, but in this case Democrats have the edge, with 2% better favorable ratings... congratulations you horse's asses. As you can see there is more hot air in this spin cycle than Rush Limbaugh's sweat pants.

The future:

So what do the Democrats do to recover from this loss? The first thing that has to happen is a shake up of the DNC and the White House. There has been an abject failure of communication and strategy for the past few years, and the first person who must surely step down from his position is Tim Kaine, the chairman of the DNC. Tim Kaine has shown himself to be an inept and uninspiring character who has as much in the way of tactical nous as he has hair, and even Democrats are left cringing every time he goes on tv and whips out some lame slogan or a special campaign key chain. In just about every way, the party has gone backwards since Kaine took over from Howard Dean. Tim Kaine has to go, either of his own accord or forcibly, and that has to be the first thing to happen.

Second, the White House needs a shake up. The economic team is already undergoing a reshuffling, as well as a new chief of staff coming in to replace the outgoing Rahm Emanuel who has left in order to run for mayor of Chicago. The one person who is still inexplicably hanging around is Robert Gibbs, the hapless and gaffe-prone press secretary who from day one looked completely the wrong choice for the position. From his insulting of the Democratic base to his complete inability to adequately answer even the simplest of press briefing questions, to his sheer lack of charisma and likability, the fact that Gibbs still has his job is simply astounding. No wonder the White House has such trouble communicating with the press.

As for President Obama himself, it's not yet clear just how worried he should be. It's interesting to note that he is still the overwhelming favorite to win the 2012 election among the bookmakers and strangely his odds of winning reelection actually improved following the results of the 2010 election, according to them. Is there any basis for this view?

Well actually when you look back at previous administrations, more often than not the Presidents who suffer big midterm losses go on to win reelection. In fact they seem to do a lot better than Presidents who fare well at the midterms, and this is a strongly statistically significant correlation. Recent Presidents who have suffered big midterm losses include Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, where as the few Presidents who didn't suffer such losses include Carter, Ford and Bush Sr. Do you see the difference between those two lists? The former all won reelection by a landslide, the latter were one term Presidents. The only big exception to this connection is Bush Jr, who managed to ride his presidency saving post 9/11 boost to victory in both the midterms and his reelection campaign.

So why would Presidents who lose big at the midterms do better when it comes to reelection? It's impossible to say, perhaps the loss galvanizes them and gives them a valuable wake up call prior to the campaign. Perhaps it allows the President to split the blame for poor conditions with the opposition party. Or perhaps it's the case that midterm winning parties go on something of a power trip after they win and end up overplaying their hand. The obvious example of this is the Clinton administration, where Republicans won big in 94, spent the next two years focusing entirely on bringing down the President, and then lost big in 96. Sounds familiar doesn't it?

That brings us on to the future for Republicans. They now face a difficult balancing act, because they want to have the power to make life difficult for Obama, but they have to resist going too far and scaring away independents. They also want to avoid being lumped with the responsibility of power, and in this regard the media coverage of their victory this week will probably go against their interests.

The narrative right now seems to be that Republicans have taken control of the government, when in fact they only control a small part of it. This means that voters will be holding them accountable for what happens now, even if they don't really have much say in it. Indeed it's very interesting that since the big victory, Republicans have spent a lot of time trying to play down their role in the current Government; perhaps they regret now some of their own hyperbole.

The other big concern for Republicans is the tea party. As it turned out the Tea Party candidates didn't fare so well on election night, despite the relative ease with which they knocked out more moderate GOP candidates in the primaries. This is a big worry for 2012 where the Tea Party could conceivably force through one of their own candidates, say a Sarah Palin or Christine O'Donnell type, and likely blow any chance the GOP has of winning that election. It is no wonder then that Republican leaders are planning a "stop the tea party" campaign as mentioned earlier.

In addition you have Tea Party Republicans challenging for prominent roles in this new GOP controlled House, including the positively ludicrous Michele Bachmann and Joe Barton who apologised to BP for the oil spill (somehow). The unintended side effect of this big Republican win seems to be that the most frightening and off putting of conservatives are going to be thrusting themselves into the limelight, fresh with the confidence that it is their brand of craziness that has won the day. No doubt there are plenty of Republicans worrying about the effect on the electorate of having people like Bachmann and Joe Barton become the face of their party in the run up to the election. The civil war within the GOP is starting to reach fever pitch and they'll need to have it sorted out before they pick a 2012 candidate to represent the entire party, or they simply won't win.

If the Republicans are smart, they'll spend the next two years toning down the extremist rhetoric and focus on jobs as the voters told them to. Their early press conferences where they imply a primary focus on healthcare repeal suggests that they could well pull a 96 and blow this massive chance that they've fought for.

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