The Bigger Picture
Published on November 15th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
In my last column published on the eve of America’s 2010 mid-term elections I predicted that; “while I don’t see much chance for Republicans to regain control of the Senate, I think it is likely they will achieve the net gain of 39 seats they will need to take control of the US House of Representatives. So barring an unexpectedly large turnout of voters on Election Day, I foresee America reverting once again to divided government. If this indeed happens, then that raises the question of; “What will Americans expect from the ‘Party of No’, once they are back in power?”
Given the fact that my predictions proved to be accurate, I will spend my remaining columns before the New Year trying to address this query. But before I attempt to answer my own question, I would first like to place the election results in their proper perspective. Did President Obama and the Democratic Party take a hiding on 2 November? Yes. In fact, the Republican Party made up most of its losses in Congress from both the 2006 and 2008 elections in just this one single mid-term election. No question Obama and the Democrats took a beating.
But it would also be unwise for President Obama and either the Republican or Democratic Party to read too much into the sound thrashing voters delivered to Democrats in Congress and in many state Governors’ races. Why? Because if you drill down below the surface of what appears to have been a landslide victory for Congressional Republicans, you will find ample evidence which indicates this election was not the resounding voter mandate to oppose President Obama that Republican leaders in Congress and elsewhere are claiming it was.
To begin with, almost one third fewer American voters went to the polls in this year’s midterm elections than those who did so in the 2008 Presidential elections. Overall voter turnout dropped off a veritable cliff falling from 61.6 percent in November 2008, to a dismal 41.5 percent in November 2010. In other words, instead of these elections being decided by close to two thirds of America’s voters, they were decided by just over two fifths of eligible voters.
Another telling statistic was the demographic make-up of the voters in the 2010 elections compared to those who voted in the 2008 elections. Whereas white voters, who generally tend to be a bit older and more conservative than minority voters, comprised only 74 percent of overall voters in 2008, they made up 78 percent of the electorate in 2010. Furthermore, the turnout of voters under 30, who cast 66 percent of their votes for President Obama and his Democratic Party allies in 2008, dropped from a high of 52 percent in 2008 to a dismal 20 percent in the most recent elections. So given the fact that the Republicans’ base of older white voters showed up at the polls and the Democratic Party’s base of minority and younger voters did not, is it really a surprise that the results turned out so bad for President Obama and the Democrats? No.
The danger for both Republicans and Democrats is that both camps have a long history of misreading the results of midterm elections, usually with disastrous consequences for their candidates. The lesson for President Obama and his Democratic Party allies in Congress is not to panic. President Reagan and the Republican Party suffered a similar setback in the midterm elections of 1982 and Reagan responded by winning reelection in 1984 with one of the biggest electoral landslides in American political history.
President Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress should also take note of what happened to Democrats who waffled in their support of President Obama’s legislative agenda and or voted against his economic stimulus or healthcare proposals. To be sure, 32 Democrats who voted for Obama’s healthcare package were indeed defeated by Republicans in their bids for reelection. But many of them were also running in districts that had voted for John McCain in the 2008 elections, so given the low Democratic voter turnout and the anti-incumbent tide the Republicans were riding the chances are good they would have lost their seats regardless.
The more telling statistic is the fact that of the 34 Democrats who did vote against the President’s healthcare legislation, exactly half of them also went down to Republican challengers. Many of these Democratic incumbents figured that opposing the President on this issue would ensure their continued survival in Congress. In other words, holding on to their personal political power was more important than serving the interests of their party and their country. As for the other 4 Democrats who also voted against the healthcare plan but chose to retire instead of running for reelection, 3 of their open seats were also won by Republicans.
Other Democrats, like Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, who waffled in their support of President Obama’s economic and healthcare agenda did no better in their reelection bids than the Democrats who had opposed Obama in Congress. Lincoln figured the best way for her to win a fourth term in the Senate was to flip flop her votes for and against President Obama’s legislation thereby proving her independence to more conservative white voters. But she angered Democratic voters in the process which led to a nasty primary fight with the states popular Lieutenant Governor. She won that battle but lost the war as Arkansas voters handily reelected their Democratic Governor while simultaneously kicking their Democratic Senator to the curb.
The lesson for President Obama and Democrats is that while they need to show willingness to compromise with their Republican opponents, they should not ignore their principles or betray their convictions in the process. They were elected to serve the greater public good, not their own personal interests such as retaining their political power. As for my fellow (I use this term loosely) Republicans, I will discuss the lessons they should take away from the midterm election results in my next column.