This election was an odd mix. On the House side, it was a nationalized, parliamentary election where the party affiliation of candidates was all-important. In the Senate and gubernatorial races, where Republican gains were not of the same magnitude as in the House, party affiliation was also important but so too were the personalities and records of individual candidates.
Republicans should tread very carefully, however. The most predictable sin in politics is over-reading a mandate or creating one that simply wasn’t there on Election Day. Voters are much more articulate about expressing their frustrations than their desires.
Any party holding power would take a hit when unemployment is 9.6 percent and the economy is stalled.
In 2006, voters didn’t like the war in Iraq, the long string of Republican scandals, and mounting federal budget deficits. As a result, Democrats won six Senate seats and 31 House seats. In 2008, the war was less of an issue, but the economy had gone into free-fall. GOP nominee John McCain didn’t seem to be the answer, and Americans were intrigued by a new arrival on the political scene, Barack Obama. Voters thought he was a young man running on a platform of changing the way Washington worked. In supporting him, they weren’t demanding a sweeping overhaul of the health care system or a cap-and-trade plan to curb pollution.
Political scientists have three theories about midterm elections, and all three hold a great deal of merit. The best-known one is the referendum theory—that midterm elections are a referendum on the president and the party in power. This year certainly had an element of that.
The second theory is “surge and decline.” In a presidential election year, the winning side has issues, turnout, and other dynamics creating momentum. Two years later, the circumstances are very different, and those candidates elected in the surge have a hard time surviving. Because Democrats had back-to-back surges in 2006 and 2008, a huge decline was in the offing.
The third theory is “balance.” Presidential candidates almost invariably run toward the center in a general-election campaign (anyone remember Gov. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism?”). Then, upon victory, they pivot toward the party’s flank. Two years later, voters seek a restoration of balance, which is what many of them thought they voted for to begin with.
We saw elements of all three theories this year. As I told a roomful of House Republicans last summer, “I think you are going to win a majority in the House, but you should consider this an ‘unearned’ win.” The bad news for them was that voters didn’t like them and hadn’t forgiven them. But the good news was that this election wasn’t about them—it was about the Democrats.
Unquestionably, part of this election was ideological and substantive. Voters reacted with hostility to the details and direction of health care and cap-and-trade. Some was certainly a blowback on the bank bailout, which was ironically passed before Obama was even elected president. Yet a big piece of this hostility had to do with the economy. Any party holding the presidency and majorities in the House, Senate, governorships, and state legislatures would take a hit when unemployment is 9.6 percent and the economy is stalled.
I have been writing since last year that Democrats were not focusing enough on the economy; that they seemed to “check the box” with the economic-stimulus plan and moved on to other things. In making that case, I have incurred the scorn of many liberals, including Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics. I don’t presume to know more about economics than Krugman, but I suspect I know a bit more about politics and public opinion. Having said that, I wonder if he thinks that the $787 billion stimulus package was as focused as it should have been; if, for example, helping doctor’s offices convert to new technology was the best place for a stimulus package to produce the most bang for its buck. A stimulus should have one mission: creating the maximum number of jobs in as cost-effective a manner as possible. The administration didn’t want to use up any more chits than necessary to improve the stimulus plan drafted by lawmakers, because they wanted to save them for energy and health care.
Voters want to see focus. Remember back to 1992 when then-Gov. Bill Clinton said that, if elected president, he would focus on the economy like a laser beam. Voters were focused on the economy and jobs last year, but they found a president and Democratic Congress seemingly obsessed with health care and cap-and-trade. It’s no wonder that we saw something that to me is unprecedented: polls showing that the public doesn’t think a Democratic president has done enough to create jobs.
If the economy had been good and jobs plentiful, Americans would have welcomed a national discussion of health care reform and climate change. But the situation changed, and the president and the Democratic Congress did not seem to realize it until it was way too late.
This article appears in the November 6, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.