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A Few Caveats on the Republican “Mandate”

Now that the dust has cleared a little bit and the first round of post-election analyses are in, one emerging storyline is that the electorate has grown more conservative. But before Republicans go off and claim a mandate, a couple of caveats are in order.

  1. Beware the shifting independents. Much has been made of the shifting independents, who, according to exit polls, went from breaking 57-to-39 percent for Democrats in 2006 to breaking 55-to-39 percent for Republicans in 2010. Independents, who made up 28 percent of the voters in this election, are a difficult category to analyze, since many actually vote a lot like partisans even though they call themselves “independent” (for various reasons). As I’ve explained in an earlier post, it makes the most sense to think of independents in shades of independence, and the more truly independent the voter, the less ideological but also the less engaged and less politically informed the voter. All of which is to suggest that the independent voters who shifted from red to blue probably don’t really care much about ideology. Rather, they are most likely anti-politics and above all want to see more jobs and a recovering economy. They didn’t vote for an ideological crusade; they voted for the hope of a better economy and out of a need to blame somebody (the party in power) for their woes.
  2. Beware the shifting electorate. It’s pretty clear that the voters who turned out in 2010 were, on average, a bit older and a bit whiter than the voters who turned out in 2008. Had younger voters and African-American voters –who remain the most reliably Democrat demographics – turned out at 2008 levels, at least a few of the close House and Senate races might have flipped the other way. In part, this was entirely predictable, since voter turnout in mid-terms is historically two-thirds of what it is in presidential elections, and youth and minority voters tend to be most likely to not be paying attention for mid-term elections.  But if they turn out again in 2012 at 2008 levels (and as long as Obama is on the ballot, there is good reason to think they will), then a decent number of the Republican freshmen could be one-termers. Republicans should be careful of mistaking a more conservative voter turnout this time around for a more conservative electorate.
  3. Beware the pendulum. In 2006, Democrats picked up 21 seats, and in 2008, they picked up 31 seats. Many of those pick-ups were in solid Republican districts, and so of the Republican pick-ups on Tuesday, 22 were in seats that had been solidly Republican in 2002-2006, and 15 were in seats that had been solidly Republican in 2002-2004. In other words, almost two-thirds of the pick-ups were simply reversions to ideological-demographic expectations.  But Republicans also expanded into blue territory, picking up 22 seats that were solidly Democratic in 2002-2006, seats they might not be able to keep. As Ed Kilgore has explained, like all waves, this one “definitely has an undertow.”

America continues to be a 50-50 country, with a soft non-ideological middle of anxious, cranky, and sometimes fickle voters who don’t trust politicians and aren’t particularly happy with their choices. Majorities of voters now have an unfavorable view of both Republicans (52 percent) and Democrats (53 percent). Yet what’s remarkable is that even among those voters who had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, almost one in four (23 percent) still held their nose and pulled the lever for the GOP. By comparison, only 10 percent of the voters who held an unfavorable view of Democrats voted blue anyway. Taken together, we now have more than a sixth of the electorate voting for a party of which they have an unfavorable view.

In short, this election can be explained simply by noting that older, whiter conservatives turned out in greater numbers than younger, more diverse voters, and non-ideological, performance-oriented independents decided to blame Democrats this time around. Neither of these reflect a dramatic change or are necessarily permanent conditions of American politics.


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