A week ago today, voters flipped the Obama coalition on its head and voted for Republicans in a mid-term landslide that has the potential to be a transformational election. Notice how we used the word “potential.” That’s because every new majority can go in one of two directions: it can either cement its winning coalition or it can fritter it all away. History will be the judge, but the next 12 months will give us a pretty good indication of how this will turn out. Either way, what is clear is that this was a historic defeat for Democrats. And the depth and breadth of the GOP wave was greater than most people realize.
As of today, the GOP has recorded a net gain of 60 seats (seven races remain undecided). It is likely that the net GOP pickup will be around 63 seats. Either way, last Tuesday’s results are the greatest shift from one party to another in the House of Representatives since 1938 (in that year Republicans picked up 80 seats in a dramatic rebuke for New Deal Democrats). The GOP now controls the greatest number of seats (and conversely the Democrats the fewest) in the House since 1948. The GOP also picked up six Senate seats yet fell short of control of the Senate (more on this later). At the state level, the GOP gained seven Governorships and 20 state legislative chambers. These gains were not limited to the South, either. The entire Wisconsin and New Hampshire legislatures flipped to the GOP by wide margins. For the first time since 1870 the North Carolina state legislature is in the hands of Republicans. State Houses in key presidential swing states like Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan all flipped to the GOP. Republicans haven’t had this much power in state capitals since the 1920’s. This is something that really sets this year apart from 1994, in which the GOP wave was largely limited to federal elections. This year may have been much more than a wave.
President Obama says the election was all about the economy and Republicans say it was (almost) all about Obama. It was, of course, about both. Republican leaders are loath to admit that they had a terrific wind at their back in terms of voter anger over the economy and the direction of the country. Meanwhile, Democrats—and the president in particular—seem to not want to acknowledge widespread voter dissatisfaction with their policies. But it took the two in combination to create the tsunami we had last week. While we knew that the economy and dissatisfaction with the president’s policies would create a violent combination, it was not until the end of September that we knew just how great the wave would be.
Here are what we consider to be the key points about last week’s election:
1. This election was a correction and then some. Democrats didn’t lose because their base did not come out. Instead, Democrats lost because they were exposed in conservative districts that went to Obama in 2008 (and, to some extent, in 2006) and reverted to their traditional GOP norm this time around. Remember, Obama swept into office on the heels of the most catastrophic economic collapse since the great depression. On Labor Day of 2008, many polls had Obama either slightly ahead of or even with McCain. It wasn’t until the Lehman collapse on September 15th—and the subsequent market plunge—that the bottom fell out for McCain. Now, it is fair to say that perhaps Obama would have won without the economic freefall, but it is no sure thing (and it probably would have been a lot closer). The point is that dozens of Democrats came into office during this period of economic crisis and anti-Bush/anti-Iraq sentiment that would have never have won otherwise. These issues together formed what economists call a “black swan” event, a once in a lifetime situation. And what happened last week is that traditional Republican districts became red again.
2. At the end of the day, candidates matter. This is especially true at the Senate and Gubernatorial levels. Candidates like Angle, Buck and—most obviously—O’Donnell were simply not good candidates and, on top of that, did not run particularly good campaigns. According to exit polls, a sizable portion of Harry Reid’s voters had an unfavorable opinion of him. But they voted for him anyway because they had an even less favorable view of Sharron Angle. Note that I am not saying that these candidates were “too conservative” to win, just that they were lousy candidates. Pat Toomey is extremely conservative but he won in purple/red Pennsylvania because he was a good candidate. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin was as true a Tea Party candidate as you could find but he was also an astute candidate who ran a disciplined campaign.
3. We have been saying for months that the “middle” of the electorate left Obama and on Tuesday they landed on the GOP’s doorstep. According to exit polls, Independents went with Republicans by a 16-point margin (55%-39%). In 2008 Independents broke for Obama 52% -44%. But Indies peeled off from the President in the summer of 2009 and never looked back. Independents went heavily for GOP gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey and helped elect Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Republicans didn’t win because their vote showed up and the Democrat vote didn’t. They won because the middle went their way. Look at it this way: in 2006 36% of voters were Republican and 38 percent were Democrats. In 2010, 36% of voters were Republican and 36% were Democrats. A slight drop off, sure, but not enough to explain the historic wave. This wasn’t about GOTV or tactics, it was about a broad sentiment that ran across the electorate.
4. The GOP has retaken the American heartland and Obama needs it to win again in 2012. The new map looks a lot like 2004. As Jay Cost recently pointed out, 2010 reverted to the Bush majority. You can drive in a fairly direct line from New Jersey to California without ever having to cross into a Democratic congressional district. The new map is a sea of red. The biggest gains were in the heartland: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Exit polling suggests that 54% of voters in the Midwest voted Republican while only 44% voted Democrat.
5. Democrats had a firewall and it worked in the Senate. Like a retreating army, the Democrats headed for the coasts and did well in Washington state, California and Connecticut, staving off a GOP Senate takeover. These are blue states and the Republican wave simply did not happen there. Why any Republican presidential candidate would spend a dime in California is beyond me.
6. It was the economy AND anger over policy direction that motivated voters. We really should stop separating the two because together they formed the nuclear material that fueled this election. According to exit polls, 89% of voters believe that the national economy is in bad shape. Among those voters, 55% supported Republicans for the House. Four in ten voters said that they’re worse off now than they were a year ago, and these voters favored Republicans by almost 30 points. For the first time in exit polling history, voters who said that the economy was the number one issue supported Republicans. Riding side-by-side with the economy was anger over the way the federal government is working. There was a general perception that the agenda laid out by President Obama and Democrats in Congress was an overreach.
a. In the exit polls, almost half of all voters (48%) said Congress should repeal Obamacare. They voted overwhelmingly for Republicans by a 9 to 1 margin.
b. A majority (56%) said that the government is “doing too many things” (in 2008 only 43% said the same thing).
c. “Angry voters,” (which was 26 percent of the overall electorate) supported Republicans for the House of Representatives by 84% to 13%. We keep looking at that number in disbelief. That is an astonishing 71-point gap.
7. These results should not be construed as an endorsement of the GOP. Yes, I have called this election transformational, but it was more about an attachment to an ideology than it was an embrace of the Republican brand. Last week was a revolt of the center-right coalition against a) a liberal agenda and b) a bad economy. For most voters, it was not a vote for Republicans (a sizable chunk of the electorate voted Republican even though they had an unfavorable opinion of the party). Voters were mad at both parties, but, since the Democrats were in charge, voters took their anger out on them. Republicans still have a long way to go in terms of refurbishing their brand, but last Tuesday represents an opportunity for a fresh start.
Thanks again to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their insights and contributions. For real-time reactions to events and more thoughts on the public opinion environment, please follow us on Twitter @lcgpolling.