Well, the midterm elections are over and the GOP is feeling revitalized. Conservatives of all stripes are confidently declaring that, “The American people have spoken.” Count me as one who has no idea what they just said. These election results leave me utterly perplexed. Perhaps I would be less confused if I embraced the maxim, “All politics is local.” Such a view certainly saves one the trouble of looking for larger trends. Alas, in a nation where the national government has a say in almost every sphere of our lives, and the economy is in the doldrums from sea to shining sea, I cannot take such a view seriously. Nonetheless, I remain unable to discern a meaningful pattern to these results.
The GOP was rebuked in 2006 and 2008 because of its failed policies. Yet they were given a second chance without first admitting their mistakes – apart, I suppose, from acknowledging that they engaged in too much generic “spending.” I am certainly not alone in assuming that the results on Nov. 2nd were more about the public’s frustration with Obama’s failure to turn the economy around than its confidence that John Boehner can do better.
Still, the aggregate results don’t tell me much. The exit polls show some weird anomalies. In my own beloved home state of Washington, for example, we see that voters under 50 swung for the Republican candidate Dino Rossi (in fact, 11 percent of 2008 Obama voters in the Evergreen State pulled the lever for the Republican senatorial candidate this year). Yet, among those older than 65, Murray did better this year than Obama two years ago. Why on earth would a milquetoast establishment Republican do so well among younger voters – “younger” defined as those between 30 and 50, I haven’t seen results for those under 30, but I assume they went heavily for Murray— without seeing a similar gain among senior citizens? I would spend more time thinking about this, but it appears that Washington was an outlier here. I haven’t yet found another state in which the GOP candidate did better among those under 50 than among those over 65. Not even Rand Paul, who surely benefitted disproportionally from young activists, can make such a claim. Granted, I don’t have much trust in the accuracy of exit polls, but for the time being they are the best data we have on this election.
Unless the dramatically different election results in recent years were entirely driven by turnout trends, big swings suggest that we’ve entered a new era of weak partisan attachments. This is totally at odds with the view held by most political scientists, who, with a few prominent exceptions, tend to accept the proposition that the public is more polarized along partisan lines now than in any period in recent memory. I furthermore tend to agree with the position that most self-described “independent voters” are really just partisans who don’t want to admit their partisanship. In reality, those who describe themselves as “independents who lean toward one party” are usually more firm in their partisan attachments than self-described “weak partisans.” Genuine independents are actually rather rare. I therefore don’t give much weight to the opinion that “swing voters” are the key variable in any election. So what’s going on?
Things are further confused by the “Tea Party” candidates – whatever the heck those are. Some of them won big (Paul), whereas others performed, sometimes surprisingly, poorly (O’Donnell, Angle). Now everyone can decide for themselves whether the Tea Party is good for the GOP based on their personal preferences. I guess that’s good news for professional pontificators with an ax to grind, but a challenge for those of us who genuinely want to sort it all out.
If we want to let someone else decide these things for us, I suppose we can always turn to the pundits, who are required to have a firm opinion on everything. Matt Lewis boldly declared that that the 2010 elections represent a revival of “serious conservatism.” He then backed up his assertion by pointing out that, uh, Ronald Reagan read quite a few books in the 1960s. Lewis is confident that the new crop of Republicans will be on par with that towering intellectual giant (and no, I’m not kidding) Jack Kemp. Well, at least I can now say that, for the first time ever, I agree with something Lewis has written.
Sometime next year we’ll have access to individual polling data that will let us parse it all out. By that time, of course, most people will have moved on. In the meantime, you can count me as confused.