A Midterm Examination

The voters have spoken, but what did they say? Columbia political scientist Lincoln Mitchell '96GSAS assesses the 2010 elections.

by Lincoln Mitchell ’96GSAS Published Winter 2010-11
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Illustrations by Craig LarotondaLate on the evening of November 2, when Congressman-elect and soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner teared up during his election-night statement, it marked the conclusion of a long and improbable journey by Boehner’s Republican Party. The GOP, which had been all but irrelevant after successive defeats in national elections in 2006 and 2008, had now wrested the House of Representatives from the Democrats only two years after Barack Obama’s historic election.

It is easy to look at the big Republican victory and conclude that the American people had rapidly tired of President Obama’s progressive — or in the eyes of some critics, socialist — policies, and made a sharp turn to the right. Defenders of the president, on the other hand, argue that the president’s party often loses seats in midterm elections, and that in this regard, 2010 was not unusual at all.

The first explanation reflects an ahistorical understanding grounded more in ideological feeling than in empirical evidence. The second is not so much ahistorical as it is oblivious to the real data from the election, or the extent of the Republican victory.

So what happened, then?

Not surprisingly, the truth lies somewhere in between the two interpretations.

How bad was it?

The 2010 midterms represented a major defeat for President Obama ’83CC and his party, but one that differed only in degree, not in kind, from those suffered by many presidents during their first midterm elections, going back to Warren Harding. In the 44 midterm elections since 1922, every president, except for Franklin Roosevelt in 1934, John F. Kennedy in 1962, Ronald Reagan in 1982, and George W. Bush in 2002, saw his party lose seats in both houses of Congress two years after beginning his first term. In 1970, Richard Nixon’s Republican Party lost seats in the House but gained one Senate seat. However, the loss of 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats suffered by the Democrats last fall is one of the worst defeats in history. Only Democratic losses in 1938, 1946, and 1994, and Republican setbacks in 1922, 1930, and 1958, were of a comparable scale.

This background suggests that while voters were clearly dissatisfied with the president and his party, the notion that this election represented a significant swing of the ideological pendulum is inaccurate. A better explanation is that 2010, rather than standing in contrast to 2008, actually has a lot in common with the election that sent Barack Obama to the White House in the first place. Although 2008 was a political lifetime ago — when Obama could be said without irony to represent hope and change, the Republican Party was in free fall, and a tea party referred to a get-together involving a kettle and crumpets — many of the same political and economic conditions that framed the recent election framed the last national election as well.

The 2008 and 2010 elections occurred in a time of sharp economic crisis when voters were preoccupied with joblessness, sinking home values, and a bleak economic future. In both years, the country was involved in the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though by 2010 there was a timetable set for ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq had officially been declared over. For most voters these were distinctions without differences, since in both years the U.S. had hundreds of thousands of troops in these countries, with victory seemingly distant and an exit strategy equally remote.

In this light, the 2010 election begins to look different. Rather than an ideological shift, the Republican victory, like the Democratic landslide two years earlier, is the result of dissatisfied voters opposing the incumbent party. The same electorate that was so anxious for change in 2008 punished the Democrats a short two years later for failing to turn the country around quickly enough. While Democrats and the Obama administration sought to persuade the public of the difficulty of the problems facing the country and of the value of the work they had already done, voters were unmoved. For the second time in two years, they threw out the incumbents.

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