after the election I received an email from an American expat political
scientist with the subject line, ‘Madness’.
It was a concerned missive on the 2010 midterm elections and assorted
American pathologies – expats are like that.
Like my colleague, I had the experience of watching the election from
afar and through a different lens than usual.
Whether I was getting a hair cut, or taking a taxi, or out to dinner, someone
would hear my accent and ask in a flummoxed tone about the elections generally
and the Tea Party movement specifically.
It will be some time before political scientists can speak with authority
about this election. My own sense,
however, is that while America is a centre right country, these elections do
not send anything like a clear ideological signal. Instead, they reflect the Republican Party’s
ability to field a stronger set of candidates than the Democratic Party, as
well as a rather catholic disaffection with political leadership.
intuitive sense to attribute election results to structural factors, and in
this election structural factors favoured the Republican Party. On Election Day, President Obama’s job
approval rating was at about 43%, having declined steadily during his first two
years in office, while public approval of the Democratically controlled U.S.
Congress was a moribund 20%. Sixty to
62% of Americans believed that the country was heading in the wrong direction. The national unemployment rate was 9.6%, but
it exceeded 10% in Nevada, Florida, Rhode Island, Michigan, and California. For
their part, congressional Democrats had sizeable majorities in both chambers,
but many of their members were from marginal (that is, competitive) districts.
(See John Sides’ analysis, http://tinyurl.com/2a89yg7.) None of these factors created an
especially favourable opportunity structure for the governing party.
punditry will no doubt attribute Democratic losses to these factors. Indeed, poll data indicate that the economy
and joblessness were the most salient issues in this election, by far. It was no surprise that pollsters were
finding Republicans favoured on the generic ballot by wide margins. However, there are two things worth
noting. First, the political science
literature on what affects vote choice is mixed. We may attribute voting to these larger
factors, but voters do not necessarily explain their vote in those terms. Second, Americans do not receive a generic
ballot when they go to the polls. They
face a choice between two individuals of varied candidate quality, and in this
election, Republicans fielded higher quality candidates.
More than affecting
vote choice, structural factors altered the strategic environment. Politicians are, on the whole, strategic and
ambitious actors. In deciding when to
run for office, they are more likely to expend the necessary capital to mount a
campaign when the environment is favourable to them and their party. On this point, the political science
literature is fairly compelling. In the
current cycle, quality Republican candidates read the context as good for them
and decided to run, while quality Democratic candidates likely decided to keep
their powder dry for another time. The
argument on aggregate candidate quality holds even taking into consideration
the Tea Party movement, whose candidates were less likely to have electoral
experience, although not to the degree one might expect. (See Brendan Nyhan’s analysis on this point, http://tinyurl.com/26lcj7m.)
the Tea Party movement: to the extent that it confounds my Irish friends, they
will find themselves in the company of many establishment Republicans. Political Scientist Andrew Gelman asks an
interesting question, ‘Radical or merely
conservative?’ It is
difficult to know what the movement is, given that it has no leadership and has
not been subject to systematic study, yet.
To be sure, it includes some of the fringe elements of American
politics. (Quick, American readers – raise your hands if you’d like to repeal
the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and/or eliminate Social
Security. Any takers?) At the same time, I suspect it also includes
disaffected conservatives – primarily Republicans and maybe some Independents –
who do not feel well represented by the party system at the moment. When I first started teaching in 1999, and I
would discuss ideology with my students, it was reasonable to characterize conservatives
as those supporting limited, smaller government, and liberals as those
believing that activist government is an effective mechanism for achieving
social goals. Yet, during George W.
Bush’s presidency, a new phrase entered the American political lexicon – big
government conservatives. (And thank you for that, Fred Barnes, http://tinyurl.com/26qrnp.) These were people who supported
robust government, but for conservative ends. This was accompanied by increased
discretionary spending, a new prescription drug entitlement, increased federal
responsibilties in primary education, two foreign wars, a new cabinet
department, and, of course, federal intrusion into Terri Schiavo’s end of life
with any kind of libertarian streak no doubt chafe at these developments, and I
suspect they have found a home in the Tea Party movement. So, the movement is some part fringe, some
part conservative activism. I would not
guess at the proper proportions, nor would I treat the movement glibly. The Tea
Party may have cost the Republican Party some seats, but I am not sure that its
effect is a net negative. As others have
noted, the movement’s candidates did well, especially considering that many were
running in unwinnable Democratic districts.
Moreover, the movement’s enthusiasm probably drove up Republican
turnout. In any case, the Republicans
should be grateful that the Tea Party worked within the confines of the
Republican Party, rather than mounting third party bids.
conjecturing about what this election means moving forward, some perspective is
in order. First, Americans now have
divided government, as they have had for 30 of the last 42 years. Moreover, the
congressional parties will likely be extraordinarily polarized. (See Boris Shor’s analysis, http://tinyurl.com/29llkvd and http://tinyurl.com/3a5nn9c.) The upshot of this is that if the
parties are disciplined, neither has sufficient institutional power to be
dominant. The American people can
anticipate two years of incrementalism and ethics investigations. Second, if Republicans parlay this victory
into longer term electoral dominance, it will be because of what happened at
the state level. According to the
National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans picked up at least 675 state legislative seats and
took control of at least 19
legislative chambers. U.S. House
districts are drawn by state legislatures after each decennial census. Having just completed the 2010 Census,
legislatures will begin this process very shortly. Republicans are now in a position to
gerrymander favourable districts all over the country, perhaps facilitating
additional pickups in 2012.
is the norm for the president’s party to lose seats in midterm elections. To the extent that winning presidential
candidates have coattails, they facilitate the election of fellow partisans
from marginal districts, districts that will be extraordinarily difficult to
defend in the next cycle. In that context the Republicans had a terrific night,
winning control of the House and increasing their numbers in the Senate, but
not winning enough that they can easily be held accountable for unfavourable
conditions two years from now. (According to Politico.com, 51 incumbents lost
their bid for re-election; all but two were Democrats.) Having said that, this is hardly a mandate
for congressional Republicans. Leading
up to the election, only a third of Americans approved of the way congressional
Republicans were doing their job, giving them support roughly equivalent to
congressional Democrats. In some
instances they polled even worse than the Democrats. Americans are in a practical mood. Mostly, they would like to see economic
growth and improvement in the unemployment rate.
Dr. Elizabeth Oldmixon is an Associate Professor in the
Department of Political Science at University of North Texas-Denton and one of this years US Fulbright Scholars to Ireland.
Dr. Oldmixon is based at the Department of Government at University
College Cork where she is lecturing and undertaking research in the area
of, ‘Religion and the Legislative Politics in the Republic of Ireland
and the United States’.