There have been some interesting responses to the midterm election results. I’d post lots of links and summaries, but that would inevitably betray my rather eclectic RSS feed reading habits. (It’s also overwhelming for my little netbook to have all those links open.) In the main, however, the Republican victories in the House seem to me to follow the basic contours of America’s political geography in ways that are hardly surprising. Urban districts retained their Democratic representatives, while rural areas captured Republican votes. I wondered, as I watched election results roll in earlier this week, what turnover in the House was actually historic (in the short term). I believe that something rather elementary happened: The voters mobilized to confront Bush in the midterm 2006 election and to elect Obama in 2008 stayed home.
This is when a powerful infographic like that offered by the NY Times comes in very handy. When I taught in the Writing Program at UCSB in 2008 we used this exact chart to explore regional voting for the Presidential race. When you compare district results over the last five elections, we can easily see what was novel about the 2010 elections and what was simply a reversion to pre-2006 demographics.
In 2002 the Republicans held 229 seats to the Democrats’ 204. While the Democrats controlled all of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Maine, there were many states represented solely by the Republicans: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Alaska. Several more states had a single or handful of Democratic districts in otherwise solidly Republican territory, such as Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Kentucky, and Iowa.
If we were to correlate these results with major urban center’s we’d find that in many instances, as we would naturally expect, the lone Democratic stronghold in an area was the district for a major city. Kansas City, St. Louis, Santa Fe, Denver, Boulder, and Des Moines all fall into this kind of perspective on voting patterns. It doesn’t hold true for all such districts. Take Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional district as an anti-example. But it holds for enough that we can account for many of the oases of difference that consistently appear in our voting geography.
In 2004, very little changed as the Republicans gained 3 seats (winning 8 new districts and losing 5). In 2006, however, the Democrats made significant gains as President Bush’s popularity waned and America questioned its involvement in 2 wars. These gains were further developed in 2008 with the surge of Black, Hispanic, and young voters out to elect President Obama. The result was a swing of 21 votes in favor of the Democrats as they won 26 previously Republican districts, giving them a total of 233 seats and solid control of the House.
What’s neglected in the discussion of the “tidal wave” of Republican success in 2010 is the fact that historically the districts that have been reclaimed were Republican districts and were only won by Democrats in the midterm of Bush’s second term and alongside the Presidential race of 2008. Sure, declarations of a new Liberal era vastly overstated the case (and underestimated the impact the sour economy would have), but this is not a vast reorganization of American politics. Instead it is a return to alignments of the beginning of the Bush Era, which is where the House of Representatives had been for quite some time.
Consider several districts that passed into Democratic hands in either 2006 or 2008 and which returned to Republican control in 2010.
1. Idaho 1: This district was Republican from 2002-2006, but passed into Democratic hands in 2008 by a margin of 1.2% (about 4,000 votes). It was a huge victory for Democrats because of the narrow margin. Why? The Republicans had only won by 5% (about 8,000 votes) in 2006, but in 2004 and 2002 they had won by 117,000 and 40,000 votes respectively. Presidential elections sure do get the vote out, but the blip of Democratic support betrays the solidly Republican character of this district. Thus, the 25,000 vote win for Republicans in 2010 isn’t particularly striking. Indeed, that’s only a 2,000 vote decrease from the voting numbers in 2006 (a non-Presidential year). Same old, same old, it seems to me.
2. South Dakota: This single district state became a Republican victory in 2010. South Dakota, as I noted above, had been Democratic since 2004 when it was a 8pt, 29,000 vote win that was preserved in 2006 and 2008 by even wider margins. The Democrat’s loss in SD was a 2 point or 7,000 vote defeat. In light of the impressive 2008 win (when nearly 100,000 more Democrats turned out than in this year’s race), this can feel like a pretty significant swing. The results say, however, that 2010 saw nearly 20,000 voters go Independent rather than Republican–a decline in their numbers that reduced their margin of victory from 8% to 3% (over their victory in 2004). Yet, what’s remarkable about the outcome is that it isn’t much different than 2002. A 10pt swing isn’t much in a state where you’re only talking about 20,000 voters in a year with poor turn out. Non-voting seems to have decided this race more than anything else. Where were the 100,000 extra Democrats from 2008? Did they suddenly vote Republican or Independent? No, they stayed home.
3. New Mexico 2: Bolstered by the presidential race in 2008, New Mexico’s 2nd District went Democrat by 28,000 votes (12%). The total number of voters that came out was 230,000, which is 66,000 more than voted in 2010 and 56,000 more than voted in 2006. In Bush’s 2nd midterm election, however, the Republicans won by 19 points! This was a less impressive victory than they’d had in 2004 (21%, a presidential year), but it strongly resembles the midterm election of 2002. In that race a paltry 140,000 folk showed up to give the GOP a 13pt win. Moral of the story? Again the traditional voting numbers and party affiliation were restored.
I take away from this the following hypotheses that would merit further looks with more data:
First, Obama versus McCain in 2008 was historic not simply for the outcome but because the corresponding interest led to enormous voter turn out and thus Democratic victories in traditionally Republican districts. This has been vastly undersold by news agencies trying to explain the GOP’s success this year. We’re failing to acknowledge how unique that election was and how aberrant its voting population was in relation to other recent elections.
Second, the midterm elections in 2010 failed to mobilize those same democratic voters that turned out in 2008. It’s one thing to poll those that went to vote and then make wild claims about political shifts in America, it would be something else altogether to contact those that voted in 2006 or 2008 and ask them why they didn’t show up. For all I know they might have stayed home because they were angry and Obama wasn’t “the one we were looking for.” I have a suspicion that’s not the case and that a better get out the vote campaign would have meant a different outcome. [I’m looking at you, Comedy Central and MTV.]
Finally, the overwhelming Republic victory in the House is not overwhelming in terms of how many Republicans are in office. 10 more seats (9 races are still undecided as I am writing this) in 2010 (239) than they had in 2002 (229) seems like a over-adjustment to the Republican side similar to that we saw to the Democratic side in 2008. And it is noticeably less than the 255 the Democrats just squandered because they didn’t energize their supporters to get out and vote.
It’s a fickle flip-flop that seems poised to go one of two ways in 2012. If the Democrats can successfully mobilize their supporters then we’ll see another big swing and a Democratic presidential victory. This will be even likelier if recent positive signs about economic recovery beginning turn out to be more than hot air. The struggle will be for Democrats to claim that it was their original policies and not the 2010 midterm election that instigated these changes. On the other hand, if the voters don’t turn out (for either party) then the election will be as close as those in 2000 and 2004 and likely result in a marginal gain for Democrats in the House to offset the abnormally large gains by Republicans in 2010. In that instance, if the economy is still stagnant and the Dems haven’t found a way to blame a lack of progress on legislative obstructionism and the Republicans find a compelling fiscal conservative to rally behind, then we may see a change in the White House. We can argue about message and exit poll opinions till we’re out of breath, but if the voters don’t show up like they did in 2006 and 2008, we’ll get the same results we saw in 2002 and 2004. If you didn’t vote and you don’t like the outcome, you’re to blame. Local organizers should be licking their wounds and getting to the business of making sure their constituents get to the polls in 2012.
[I’m interested in all of this not simply because I study many of the groups central to the Religious Right and at the heart of the Culture Wars, but because I was too young to appreciate the complexity of the situation that President Clinton had in 1994. As a student of American history with an emphasis on the 20th century, I’m sure this is going to be a fascinating two years for members of any political party. Check back in two years to see how I did!]