I spent most of last week discussing with my Government students at Centre College what, if anything, was unique, exceptional, or noteworthy about the 2010 midterm elections. Here is a summary of our conversations and observations:
- Voter turnout: about 40%. This is the same as it always is. NOT UNIQUE.
- 87% of House incumbents reelected and 84% of Senate incumbents reelected. This is slightly lower than the historical average, but not drastically so. NOT REALLY UNIQUE.
- The president’s party lost seats in a midterm election. NOT AT ALL UNIQUE.
- The president’s party lost 60+ seats in the first midterm election. VERY UNIQUE. (It’s usually closer to 15, on average, for the first midterm of a president’s two-term administration).
- The results of the election largely attributable to a slow economic recovery and high unemployment rate. NOT UNIQUE.
- While most sociodemographic groups shifted toward the Republicans this election as compared to 2008, it usually was not by more than 5-10%. And there were no significant ideological realignments in the American public (i.e. most younger people, racial minorities, lower income, urban, and liberals voted Democrat). NOT UNIQUE.
By all accounts, then, this was largely a predictable, ho-hum election from a historical perspective, with the exception of the magnitude of seat losses for the president’s party, which was much higher than expected.
In a word: “zilch”.
It would be nice if the results of last Tuesday’s election prompted our political leaders to seek common ground, put aside their differences, and do what’s best for the future of the country. But it’s not going to happen. Why? For several reasons, including these two:
1. There are fewer moderate members of Congress now. Most of the Democrats who were swept out of office last week were moderate Democrats from conservative districts. Ideologically speaking, the “average” Democrat in the House is now much more liberal than the “average” Democrat in the last Congress. And because of the election of a number of Tea Party Republicans, the “average” Republican is now going to be much more conservative. The two parties in Congress will now be even more ideologically polarized, if such a thing were possible.
2. It’s election season. Again. But not for 2010; for 2012. Yep, the 2012 presidential campaign began last Wednesday morning. Politically speaking, Republicans have very little incentive to provide President Obama with any sort of legislative victory, as it would only aid his reelection chances in 2012. Thus, they will be even less likely to want to “compromise” than they were before last week’s election, making the prospects for “bipartisan” accomplishments on any substantive piece of legislation very, very unlikely.
There are only about three million different interpretations of what happened on Tuesday being brandied about by pundits, politicians, columnists, and political commentators. Some of these interpretations have more empirical support than others. Here are a smattering of opinions that have come out this week that I think merit consideration:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/06/us/politics/06myths.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss – 1) this wasn’t an endorsement of the Republican party or the Republican party agenda. Republicans just happened to not be Democrats and thus they were the least unacceptable option, 2) claiming a “mandate” is a difficult thing for Republican leaders to do when only a little over 20% of the voting public voted for Republican candidates on Tuesday, and when Republicans only control 1 of 3 elected branches of the federal government.
http://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/2010/11/election_analysis.html – it wasn’t health care, deficits, or taxes. It was the economy, just like every other election.
http://www.themonkeycage.org/2010/11/2010_what_happened.html – yep, it was the economy, this time from a political scientist.
And why was it mostly the economy, and mostly not health care, deficits, Tea Parties, or tax cuts? Because the vast majority of political science research supports the argument that “elections writ large depend more on performance than on policy — that is, they depend more on how things are going (for which the incumbent party is on the hook) than on specific policies, bills, legislation, etc.” Most of the public simply doesn’t know or care about the details of specific policies, and really less than a quarter even understand the basics of a liberal-conservative ideological continuum. See these posts:
http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/03/nobody-cares-about-process/ – he’s not a political scientist, but he’s a Nobel prize-winning economist and he’s right on the point that “nobody cares about the process”.
As a quick follow up to my earlier post on 2010 incumbent reelection rates, we can also take a look at what happened in the Senate this election cycle.
Two incumbents were defeated in the primaries: Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R) and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (D). In the general election, 23 incumbents sought reelection and only two lost (Russ Feingold and Blanche Lincoln). It may possibly be three if Lisa Murkowski loses the write-in campaign in Alaska, but so far she’s ahead in the counts.
Assuming that Murkowski wins, this means that 84% of incumbent senators won reelection this time around (21 of 25, including incumbent primary losses).
Historically-speaking, the average incumbent reelection rate in the Senate since 1954 is exactly the same: 84%. Thus, it’s hard to make an argument that this was an “anti-incumbent year” for senators. In fact, more incumbent senators lost in 2008 (5), 2006 (6) and 2000 (6) than were defeated in 2010.
I submitted this letter to the Danville Advocate-Messenger last week, but it’s looking like they’re not going to get around to publishing it. So here it is for interested parties:
I am writing in response to the letter of October 27th in which it was argued that Centre College students, who are “here on a temporary basis,” do not “deserve the right” to vote in the upcoming local election. The author questions whether or not students “know the ins and outs of local issues” and argues that students should not be able to cast a vote that might “cancel” the vote of a Danville “property owner.” As a Centre College professor of American politics, I must respectfully disagree.
First, while it may be true that most students do not “know the ins and outs of local issues,” there are many long-time residents who likely know very little about local issues themselves. Most Americans know embarrassingly little about U.S. politics. Should voting be permitted only for those who are able to pass a “political knowledge” test?
Second, I disagree that only those who pay property taxes should be permitted to participate in local elections. Most property qualifications for voting were abolished in the 1830s under the Andrew Jackson administration. There are also many long-time Danville residents who are currently renting. Should they be discouraged from participating because they’re not lucky enough to be a home-owner?
Third, it’s true that Centre students are temporary residents in our community. However, implying that they should not vote simply because they haven’t lived here long enough would also imply that all non-student newcomers should not vote either. Should we have a minimum four-year residency requirement for participation in our elections? If this were the case, even one of our mayoral candidates would have a few more years to go before qualifying to vote, much less run for office.
Most importantly, should we really get into the habit of discouraging people from voting simply because we think that their votes will “cancel” our own? Discouraging the voices of those we disagree with is certainly not a democratic ideal.
Ultimately, those who are worried about Centre students “sabotaging” the upcoming election likely have little to fear. College students regularly have one of the lowest voter turn-out rates of any group in America. If Centre students follow the example of their national peers in this election, it is highly doubtful that they will turn out in droves to vote and even less likely that they will have much of an effect on the outcome of the upcoming election. I dare Centre students to prove me wrong.
Despite the media narrative that it’s an “anti-incumbent” year, I predicted on Tuesday that more than 90% of incumbents would be reelected in the House. According to Politico.com, 390 incumbent House members ran for reelection this year and 51 were defeated. Thus, 86.9% of House incumbents won reelection. Looks like I was off by 3%.
Interestingly, the House incumbent reelection rate was predicted perfectly all the way back in June by political scientist John Sides.
How does this compare to historical trends? Since 1954, the average incumbent reelection rate in the House is 93%. So incumbents in 2010 did about 6% worse than average. And this is the lowest incumbent reelection rate since 86.6% in the 1964 congressional election.
Thus, from one perspective it could be argued that this was an “anti-incumbent” year in that more incumbents were defeated than is historically the case. However, it could also be argued that a nearly 9 in 10 incumbent reelection rate hardly constitutes a resounding “anti-incumbent” thrashing in Tuesday’s election.