2010 midterm results: policies or the economy?

One more quick note on the results of the 2010 elections. A recent New York Times article explains how the Republicans are interpreting the election results as a “mandate” to pursue their policy platform (i.e. cutting taxes, repealing health care reform, etc.) while Democrats are interpreting the results as a “referendum on the economy” and not on President Obama’s policies.

Who’s correct? They both are. But this time, the Democrats are more correct.

The bottom-line question is what people were thinking when they went into the voting booth and voted Republican. Were they thinking 1) “I want to lower taxes and repeal health care reform, therefore I will vote for the congressional representative that best matches these policies preferences”, or were they thinking 2) “the economy stinks, I’m still out of a job, and thus I’ll vote for the other guys this time around”?

Undoubtedly there are some in each camp. Recent political science research, however, shows that while some people vote based on the issues (those who were thinking #1 above), most people vote based on governmental performance and the condition of the economy (#2 above).

This is simply because most Americans aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of public policy issues and related political ideologies, so it’s hard for most Americans to accurately vote based on issues. More than four decades of research has convincingly shown that the economy is the single largest factor in driving American national election results. That’s why President Obama won in 2008: the economy tanked. Interestingly, the “average American” in 2008 was closer to McCain’s than Obama on the issues, but the “average American” usually doesn’t “issue vote”.

Thus, Republicans are partially correct to interpret the results of the election as a mandate to pursue their policy agenda, because there are some out there who voted for the Republicans for this reason (the research suggests somewhere between 5-15%). However, President Obama and fellow Democrats are more correct in their interpretation of the election results because the majority of Americans turns the Democrats out of the House because unemployment is still high and the economy hasn’t recovered quickly enough. 

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