Beware the Post-Election Over-Interpretations

Individual elections have consequences beyond their immediate results, mainly in terms of the strategic lessons that are drawn from them by leaders of the two major parties and the news media. This may be particularly true in this midterm election, given the certainty of Republican gains after two big Democratic cycles.  But it is entirely possible to over-interpret elections as well, and I strongly suspect that will happen with this one.

Republicans and their media allies have a vested interest in exaggerating the “swing” that will have occurred from 2008, reinforcing their line that the 2006 and 2008 results were simply a referendum on the Bush administration’s policies—including their alleged heresies from “conservative principles”—and not an indictment of conservatism generally.

We will hear a lot on November 3 about the basic center-right nature of the country, and the punishment of Democrats for trying to implement their own platform without any sort of real mandate to do so.  And without question, some Democrats will exaggerate the results as well in order to argue that the Obama administration and congressional Democrats either failed to pay attention to the concerns of swing voters, or (more often) failed to keep the Democratic base engaged by compromising too much with Republicans or worrying too much about Wall Street.

But it’s important to keep in mind two crucial points about the arithmetic of this and other elections: (1) relatively small swings in public opinion can produce pretty big changes in results, particularly in the U.S. House, and (2) there is, and has always been, a different electorate participating in midterm as opposed to presidential elections, with the particular composition of the Democratic base making it particularly vulnerable to a midterm turnout swoon, regardless of any other factor.

On the first point, the current Democratic margin of 39 seats in the House could all but vanish if Republicans simply break even in the national House popular vote, and an advantage of five percent could swing 50 seats.  A variety of factors have vastly increased the number of competitive House seats this year (roughly doubling the number as compared to 2008), creating a larger “pool” of potential wins for Republicans.

But it’s the second point that matters most: turnout in midterm elections is inversely related to the age of voters, which is a big deal since the 2008 Obama vote varied very directly with age.  The dependence of Democrats in 2008 on Hispanics, another demographic famous for poor midterm voting, is also a problem.  But based on turnout patterns alone, it was a virtual certainty the very day after the 2008 elections—long before the Obama administration was in a position to do anything that offended a single voter–that Republicans would make significant midterm gains.  This reality is reinforced by current “likely voter” polls showing an electorate that gave a majority of its 2008 votes to John McCain.

Why does this matter in terms of interpreting what happens on November 2? Well, aside from reducing the real “swing” among participating voters, the turnout factor will reverse its effect going into 2012, creating an electorate a lot closer to the one we saw in 2008, and considerably improving Democratic prospects then.  Republicans who assume they can behave the same between 2010 and 2012 as they did between 2008 and 2010 may be in for a rude shock.  Additionally, Democrats who assume their disadvantage in midterm turnout is attributable to the administration’s failure to “energize the base” with more progressive policies or aggressive political tactics are missing the point that key components of the current base never, ever turn out for midterm elections in numbers matching older white voters.

Another result that is likely to be over-interpreted is the swing in independent voters, which most Republicans and many media pundits will attribute to some sort of swing-to-the-right among Independents or “overreaching” by Democrats.  Among the many problems in comparing the views and votes of self-identified independents over time is that this cohort is by definition a function of shifts in the number of people identifying as Democrats and Republicans.

Any “shift-to-the-right” among Independents is at least partially attributable to a profound reduction in the ranks of self-identified Republicans from 2006 on, which has only marginally reversed this year; this has the effect of making a lot of regular Republican voters of conservative outlook “Independents” by assertion.  Naturally they are going to vote Republican this year, because they just about always do.

The final area ripe for over-interpretation will be the perceived ideology of the two major parties.  Without question, hard-core conservatives will claim any GOP gains this year as final, definitive proof of their longstanding argument that only rigorous, consistent conservatism can create a Republican electoral majority.

There will be a less visible, but still distinct, argument by some progressives that Democrats need to move to the left (or at least move to a “populist” ideology and message) to win, emulating the Republican tactic. Such arguments from either direction almost certainly overestimate the extent to which voters pay close attention to the issue positions and ideological character of candidates, particularly in lower profile House races.

Yes, there will be a few races—notably the Senate races in Nevada and Kentucky—where the extremism of Republican candidates is so clear and notorious that ideology will be impossible to ignore in interpreting the results.  But by and large, the main consequence of this year’s lurch to the right in the GOP will be to push the party towards policies in office that will indeed backfire disastrously, both politically and in terms of their real-life effects.  That’s actually what happened to the GOP during the Bush years, even though conservatives want to believe it was insufficient conservatism that undid them.

And that gets back to my initial point: many people in politics use election results not to enlighten themselves and others, but to grind old axes.  Separating real from disingenuous post-election arguments will be an essential task for the reality-minded in both parties.

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