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By Michael Barone

Americans voted in record numbers for Democrats in 2008. They voted in record numbers for Republicans in 2010. Not so long ago, in the years from 1995 to 2005, it seemed inconceivable that there could be such extreme oscillation in American voting behavior. Those years were described in The Almanac of American Politics as a period of trench warfare politics, in which the political parties resembled two equally sized armies in a culture war, with very little variation in partisan preference from one election to the next and with the capture of very small pieces of political ground—a few hundred votes in Florida—spelling the difference between victory and defeat.

Since 2005, we have experienced what The Almanac in 2007 described as open field politics, in which issue focus has changed constantly and voting behavior has varied widely from one election to the next. In 2006 and 2008, Americans veered sharply toward the Democrats. In 2010, they veered sharply to the Republicans.

In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won 53% of the popular vote, more than any other presidential nominee of the world’s oldest political party except Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. He outpolled Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The popular vote for the House of Representatives has been a key political metric since the middle 1990s, when the parties’ percentages for president and for the House converged. In 2008, Democratic candidates won 54% of the popular vote for the House and Republicans won only 43%. This was the Democrats’ best showing since 1986, when they carried the House popular vote in the South (defined here as the 11 Confederate states plus West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma). In the 36 non-Southern states, Democrats in 2008 carried the popular vote for the House by 57%-40%, their biggest margin in those states since the beginning of the 20th century. Just two years later, Republicans posted a record performance. They won the popular vote for the House in 2010 by 52%-45%, the same percentage split as in 1994 and their best showing since the election of 1946.

There was speculation after the 2008 election, not without some basis, that a new Democratic era had begun, just as there was speculation after George W. Bush’s re-election and Republican victories in the 2004 election that a new Republican era was at hand. In both instances, the speculation was squelched, first by the Democratic victories in 2006 and most recently by the Republican triumphs in 2010.

Obama carried 28 states with 361 electoral votes, plus three from the District of Columbia and one from Nebraska’s proportional voting system, for a total of 365 electoral votes. John McCain carried 22 states with 173 electoral votes. Democrats did even better in House elections in 2008. They carried the popular vote for the House in 35 states with 401 electoral votes; add the District of Columbia and the total is 404. Republicans carried the popular vote for the House in only 15 states with 134 electoral votes. Democrats won the House popular vote in the North 57%-40%, their best showing since the beginning of the 20th century, and they only narrowly lost the House popular vote in the South by 50%-47%, their best showing in the region since 1992. Republicans carried the House popular vote in only two Obama states (Delaware and Florida), while Democrats carried the House popular vote in eight McCain states—four in the South (Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia) and four outside the South (Arizona, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota).

The House popular vote expressed in electoral vote terms looked very different in 2010. Democrats carried the popular vote for the House in only 15 states and the District of Columbia, for a total of 187 electoral votes. Republicans carried the popular vote for the House in 35 states with 351 electoral votes. Of the 15 Democratic states, eight were in the Northeast, three were on the Pacific coast, one was Hawaii, and only three—Illinois, Minnesota and New Mexico—were in the vast interior or on the southern rim of the country. It is an exaggeration, but perhaps a revealing one, to say that the Republicans swept everything from the George Washington Bridge to the Donner Pass.

Between the 2008 and 2010 elections, the Democratic percentage of the House popular vote fell by 9% and the Republican percentage rose by 9%. This may not seem like a lot, but it is the largest shift in partisan preference since the elections of 1946 and 1948. By way of comparison, in the five House elections during the trench warfare period between 1995 and 2005, the Democratic percentage of the popular vote oscillated between 46% and 49%, and the Republican percentage varied between 48% and 51%, with the Republicans coming out ahead narrowly all five times. Similarly, in the four elections between 1984 and 1990, the Democratic percentage fluctuated between 52% and 55%, and the Republican percentage between 45% and 47%, with the Democrats ahead all four times.

Government Expansion: Then and Now

There is an interesting similarity between the 2008-10 and 1946-48 periods. In both, to a greater extent than at any time in between, voters were faced with a choice between a Democratic Party that mostly wanted to greatly increase the size and scope of government and a Republican Party that almost unanimously opposed government expansion. In his 1944 State of the Union address, Franklin Roosevelt set forth a program for postwar America that included graduated income taxes, government controls on crop prices and food prices and continued controls on wages. He asserted that every citizen had a right to health care, decent housing and an education. It was an American equivalent of the British Labour Party’s contemporaneous program, based on the wartime Beveridge Report, for a cradle-to-grave welfare state, though without Labour’s proposals to nationalize the commanding heights of the economy. Roosevelt’s program was embraced by his successor, Truman, and it was arguably rejected by American voters in November 1946.

The 80th Congress that was installed after that election was labeled by Truman as the “Do Nothing Congress” for refusing to enact the Democrats’ program, but it in fact did a lot. The Republican majorities, with support from at least half of the Southern Democrats (the 14 Southern states elected 10 Republicans and 113 Democrats to the House), cut taxes more than any other Congress in history, abolished wage and price controls, passed the Taft-Hartley Act (over Truman’s veto) limiting the power of labor unions, and rejected public housing, federal aid to education and national health insurance. Democrats won a major victory in the 1948 elections, sweeping back to majorities in Congress. But they were split between Northern and Southern Democrats, and they were unable to repeal Taft-Hartley or to pass the housing, education and health insurance bills that liberals supported. Congress didn’t raise tax rates until after the outbreak of the Korean War.

Republicans were able to win congressional majorities only once more, in 1952, until they captured a majority in the Senate in 1980 and majorities in both houses in 1994. During that long period, there was a substantial expansion in the government after the election of 1964, and a limited contraction after the election of 1980. But the share of gross domestic product represented by federal revenues and federal government spending oscillated within a relatively narrow band.

The election of Obama and of what amounted to Democratic supermajorities in Congress (although they held a 60-vote Senate supermajority sufficient to overcome a Republican filibuster only from July 2009, when Minnesota Democrat Al Franken was sworn in, until February 2010, when Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown took office) presented Americans once again with the question of whether the size and scope of government should be vastly expanded. The Obama Democrats were faced as well with the very difficult question of how to respond to a financial crisis that had plunged the country into a deep recession in the short period between the national conventions in late summer 2008 and the inauguration of the 44th president in January 2009. They responded with the $787 billion economic stimulus bill in February 2009 and a budget that greatly increased government’s share of GDP. This reflected in part a sharp, recessionary reduction in GDP, but it also reflected a steep increase in government spending. In addition, the Democrats continued to superintend the major banks, the failed insurance company AIG, the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the bankruptcy proceedings of General Motors and Chrysler—all of them initiated during the final months of the Bush administration. And the Democrats embarked on ambitious plans for national health care legislation, for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, for adjusting financial regulation and for increasing tax rates on high-income earners. This agenda was not exactly Roosevelt’s 1944 platform, but it did represent a major escalation in the size and scope of government.

Rise of the Tea Party

There was every indication that Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress expected these efforts to stimulate economic recovery and to be popular with voters. They had talked about many of these initiatives during the congressional campaigns of 2006 and the presidential campaign of 2008. They viewed the Republican defeats in those years as not just a verdict on perceived GOP incompetence on matters ranging from the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina to the surge in spending earmarks, but as a verdict on ideology, a rejection of Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, of various forms of economic deregulation, and of intervention in Iraq. And they seemed to have absorbed the lesson taught by the historians of the New Deal: Economic distress would make American voters more supportive of, or at least amenable to, big-government policies.

This proposition turned out to be mistaken. On Feb. 19, 2009, soon after passage of the stimulus legislation, CNBC reporter Rick Santelli, speaking from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, delivered his famous rant calling for a “tea party.” Interestingly, he was complaining not about high government spending but about mortgage modification and bailouts of improvident homeowners, and by implication, bailouts of large financial firms and auto companies, which of course were initiated before Obama became president. Thousands of people took part in tea party protests on tax day, April 15, taking aim at the stimulus bill, federal budget deficits and the Democrats’ health care proposals. And they turned out in droves at town hall meetings held by Democratic members of Congress during the July and August recesses.

Public opinion polls showed the policies to be increasingly unpopular until in August 2009, Obama’s job approval, well over 60% in his first months in office, fell to just over 50%. Even more surprising was the inrush into political activity of a multitude of previously uninvolved citizens symbolized by, but not limited to, the tea party movement. This was a mass phenomenon that in some ways resembled the peace movement that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, although admirers of each movement tend to resent the comparison. In both cases, large numbers of people were motivated to enter into political activity because of their strong beliefs, not on peripheral issues, but on the most serious public policy questions of the day—war or peace, the size and scope of government. In both movements, the participants by and large were ordinary citizens, some of whom turned out to have fine political instincts: Democratic Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado was elected to the House as a peace candidate in 1972, and Republican Ron Johnson, an Oshkosh plastics manufacturer, ran for the Senate in 2010 and beat three-term Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold.

Both movements also included, as self-directed mass movements often do, a certain number of odd characters. Christine O’Donnell, who won the September 2010 Republican Senate primary in Delaware, proceeded to lose the general election by a wide margin after a campaign highlighted by revelations that she dabbled in witchcraft as a young woman. Initially, the peace and tea party movements were avowedly nonpartisan. Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey ran against Richard Nixon for the 1972 Republican nomination as a peace candidate. But soon, the bulk of their energies were concentrated within one of the two major parties. Both movements produced insurgent candidates who beat moderates in party primaries and then lost in the general election. The peace movement had a profound and lasting effect on the Democratic Party, which had been the more interventionist party on foreign policy in the 50 years from 1917 to 1967 and has been the more anti-interventionist party in the 44 years since. Whether the tea party movement will have such a powerful and lasting effect on the Republican Party is unknowable, but it certainly had a strong impact on Republicans in 2010.

The Democratic Slide of 2010

As Democrats struggled and missed deadlines in passing complex health care and carbon emissions legislation, their standing in public opinion polls declined. When Obama took office, psephologists extrapolating from the 2006 and 2008 election results speculated that Democrats might gain Senate seats in the 2010 cycle. And indeed they did gain two seats and attained the 60 they needed to overcome a filibuster when Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter switched parties in April 2009 and Franken was finally judged the winner in the close Minnesota contest. By August 2009, their prospects for gains in the Senate and House had dimmed, although few predicted that Republicans would gain the 11 Senate seats and 40 House seats they needed to claim majorities. By a narrow margin, the House in June 2009 passed a bill establishing a carbon emissions trading system, a clear priority of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. By a similarly narrow margin, and after concessions by Pelosi on a contentious abortion funding issue, the House in November passed major health care legislation. The Senate, after concessions to individual senators to secure the last handful of votes, passed its version of health care legislation just before Christmas. Democrats reckoned they could reconcile the two versions and produce a final health care bill early in the new year.

Then came a thunderbolt. Liberal stalwart Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts died in office in August 2009, and in the January 2010 special election for the Senate seat he held for 47 years, Brown beat Democrat Martha Coakley 52%-47%. The upset resulted from a convergence of factors: an attractive Republican candidate, a mistake-prone and overly confident Democrat and the involvement of tea party activists. A Rasmussen poll released on Jan. 5, two weeks before the election, showed Brown trailing by just 50%-41% and a flood of contributions—over $1 million a day—flowed into his campaign over the Internet. The fact that this upset occurred in Massachusetts, which Obama carried 62%-36% and had not elected a Republican senator in 38 years, made it all the more striking. Brown had campaigned explicitly as the 41st vote to block a Democratic health care initiative. Obama and Pelosi continued to press for the legislation, and finally settled on a strategy of having the House pass the Senate bill and then having both houses pass a reconciliation measure altering it somewhat, which under Senate rules would require only 50 votes. With perseverance, Pelosi squeezed out the necessary votes—an impressive feat of legislative leadership.

After this achievement, the Democratic leadership in Congress was in some disarray, as Republican leaders had been in 2006, their last year in the majority. Neither the House nor the Senate passed a budget resolution, which was not only contrary to the dictates of the 1974 budget law, but also meant that the Senate could pass no more legislation with a simple majority under the budget reconciliation process. The appropriations bills were not brought forward. The Senate also could not pass promised bills on cap-and-trade and immigration, much less a bill sought by labor unions to make it easier to organize workers. Plans to raise tax rates on high-income earners, long a staple of Democratic platforms, by extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts except for those earning more than $250,000 annually were left until after the election. By September 2010, it was clear that Democrats were at serious risk of losing their majority in the House and at some risk of losing their majority in the Senate. The Democrats’ campaign committee in the House, under the able leadership of Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, even cut off funding to several incumbents—triage suggesting there might be many casualties in store.

The November elections produced massive Republican gains. The GOP gained six seats in the Senate, enough to reduce the Democrats’ majority to 53-47. Republicans prevailed in Arkansas, where incumbent Blanche Lincoln was defeated 58%-37%; in Illinois, where Mark Kirk claimed Obama’s former seat 48%-46%; in Indiana, where Dan Coats took the seat vacated by Evan Bayh 55%-40%; in North Dakota, where Gov. John Hoeven ended Republicans’ 30-year losing streak in Senate contests with a 76%-22% victory; in Pennsylvania, where Arlen Specter lost the Democratic primary and Pat Toomey captured his seat, 51%-49%; and in Wisconsin, where Johnson beat Feingold 52%-47%. In Delaware, O’Donnell predictably lost, where the moderate Rep. Mike Castle, whom she beat in the September primary, would probably have won. In Nevada, Sharron Angle lost by a wide margin to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was aided by an all-out effort by casino owners and unions to retain a powerful incumbent, especially as the state’s other senator, Republican John Ensign, was increasingly enmeshed in a scandal that ultimately led to his resignation in May 2011. In Colorado, Republican nominee Ken Buck lost 48%-46% to appointed incumbent Michael Bennet.

Republicans won 63 seats in the House, by a considerable margin the largest gain for either party since 1948. The national map of congressional districts, which was about half red and half blue after the 2008 election, was closer to 80% red after the election. Democrats held geographically compact central-city and inner-suburban districts and black-majority districts in the South, but only a few clusters of rural and small-town seats.

Republican gains were even more impressive at the state level. They went into the 2010 elections with 24 governorships and emerged with 29; Democrats went in with 26 governorships and emerged with 20. One of them, Rhode Island’s, was won by former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee running as an independent. Democrats won governorships in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota and Vermont, states in which Republicans were not running for re-election, while Republicans picked up governorships in Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Implications for Redistricting

Lower down the ballot, Republicans captured more than 675 seats in state legislatures, attaining a level of dominance they have not enjoyed since the 1920s. Republicans had majorities in both houses of the legislature and control of the governorship in 20 states, Democrats in only 11. This obviously had serious implications for congressional redistricting. In the reapportionment following the 2010 census, the states won by Obama in 2008 lost a net six House seats, while the states won by McCain gained six House seats. And control of redistricting heavily favored Republicans. Two of the three largest states where Democrats hold the legislature and governorship, California and Washington, have redistricting commissions that are at least theoretically nonpartisan. Of the other 10 states with Democrats in power, Delaware and Vermont have just one congressional district each, Hawaii and Rhode Island have just two a piece, West Virginia has three and Arkansas four. There is not much room for gaining partisan advantage there. The four other states where Democrats have control are: Illinois (18 seats after reapportionment), Massachusetts (nine), Maryland (eight), and Connecticut (five). And even in these states, there is little opportunity for partisan gains. The existing plans in Illinois and Maryland were drawn by Democrats, and Massachusetts and Connecticut already have achieved all-Democratic House delegations. Plus, Massachusetts lost one of those seats in the 2010 reapportionment.

Although the prospects for Republican gains in redistricting are considerably greater than for the Democrats, they may not be as great as they first appear. The 20 states where Republicans have control of both legislatures and governorships will have 196 representatives in the 113th Congress (2013-14). But chances for GOP pickups are minimal to nonexistent in Idaho (two seats after reapportionment), Kansas (four), Maine (two), North Dakota (one), South Dakota (one), Utah (four) and Wyoming (one). Existing plans were drawn by Republicans in Florida (27), Georgia (14), Michigan (14), Ohio (16), Pennsylvania (18), and Texas (36).

The Voting Rights Act, which under prevailing interpretations requires maximizing the number of majority-black and majority-Hispanic districts, will affect redistricting in several states. This works to the Republicans’ advantage in some cases: Cordoning off heavily Democratic black voters or somewhat less heavily Democratic Hispanic voters in one or two districts tends to make adjacent districts more Republican. But rising numbers of Hispanics in Arizona, Florida and Texas may mean that the seven seats those three states gained from reapportionment will not all go to Republicans. And the new seat in South Carolina may end up as a second black-majority district. Plans passed in spring 2011 in Indiana and Missouri seem likely to cost Democrats one seat in each state, and it was possible to imagine similar small gains in Ohio and Wisconsin. Republicans’ best prospect for additional seats may be in North Carolina, where the Democratic governor under the state constitution does not have the power to veto redistricting legislation passed by the Republican-controlled legislature. And the existing plan was artfully drawn by Democrats.

Lessons for 2012

What explains the wildly different responses of voters in 2008 and 2010? And what comes next?

One explanation is voters repudiated Republicans in 2008 more on grounds of competence than of ideology, and they rejected Democrats in 2010 more on ideology than on competence. The Obama Democrats, in this view, misinterpreted the results of the 2008 election and, tempted by their large majorities, advanced policies that voters never actually endorsed. Voters certainly may have heard Democrats promoting such policies, but for the preceding 14 years, when Republicans either controlled the House or held the White House, there was no real chance they would be enacted, and so voters paid them little heed until the first months of 2009. Polling at the time also revealed voters’ anxiety about the economy, which was only sluggishly emerging from the deep recession of 2007-09. Sixty percent of Americans reported having little faith that Obama’s economic stimulus legislation would work, and most opposed any additional stimulus spending by the federal government.

Another explanation is that American voters tend to express considerable unhappiness with the status quo and favor change in the abstract, but when they are presented with the prospect of substantial change in either political direction, they tend to balk. In this view, they administered significant setbacks to Ronald Reagan’s Republicans in 1982 and to Clinton’s Democrats in 1994. They did not punish Republicans in 1990, after George H.W. Bush had compromised with Democrats on raising tax rates. They may have been inclined to go against George W. Bush and his party in 2002, but the September 11 attacks had the effect of rallying Americans behind the president. Voters did in fact repudiate Bush and his party in 2006. Americans tend to favor divided government, in this view, not just as an abstract proposition but also in practice. When one party or the other moves away from the status quo, in spite of all their grumbling about the way things are, voters seem to find it preferable to substantial change. After all, most Americans neither live in a state of material misery nor suffer political oppression as, arguably, most human beings in history have.

A third way to explain these results is to say that the electorate that turned out to vote in the midterm election of 2010 was not representative of the larger electorate that turned out in the presidential year of 2008 (and will likely turn out in the presidential year of 2012). There is something to this: Turnout among black Americans was unusually high in 2008, both because of the organizational efforts of the Obama campaign and because of spontaneous enthusiasm for the first black major party presidential candidate in American history. Turnout among young voters in 2008 also increased from 2004. The age group 18 to 24 was the only one to post a statistically significant uptick, perhaps as a result of the Obama campaign targeting residents of college towns and singles’ apartment zones in big metro areas.

But in the past two decades, increases in the number of votes cast have not necessarily correlated with Democratic victories. Voter participation was high both in the Democratic year of 1992 and the Republican year of 1994. It declined 8% between 1992 and 1996, when Clinton won a second term, and 7% between 1994 and 1998, when Republicans held on to their popular vote plurality and majority in the House. The number of ballots cast rose 9% between the presidential years of 1996 and 2000, and it went up somewhat more, 11%, between the midterm elections of 1998 and 2002. The biggest increase was the 16% from 2000 to 2004, when George W. Bush won a second term and Republicans won a majority of the House popular vote. The number of voters was up only 7% between 2004 and 2008, when Obama and the Democrats won big. And it rose 9% between the midterm elections of 2002 and 2006, culminating in a Democratic victory, and 8% between 2006 and 2010, culminating in a Republican victory. Overall, the electorate increased at a slower rate than population growth between 1994 and 2000 and at a faster rate than population growth since 2000.

From all this, it is possible to imagine two different scenarios for 2012. In one, the Democrats continue to be rejected on ideological grounds, as they were in 2010. Obama is denied a second term in favor of the Republican nominee, and Republicans hold onto their House majority and win a majority in the Senate. In the second scenario, voters reject as overreach the policies advanced by Republicans in 2011 and 2012 just as they rejected as overreach the policies advanced by Democrats in 2009 and 2010. Obama wins a second term, the Republicans’ House majority is reduced or eliminated, and the Senate remains divided approximately as it is now. Other scenarios may take shape. A public disenchanted with both political parties may rally toward an independent candidate, as it did toward Ross Perot in the spring of 1992. International events or another outbreak of terrorism may vastly strengthen or weaken the incumbent president. An egregious mistake may disqualify the Republican challenger or even the Democratic president. In a period of open field politics, surprises are often in store.

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