Is It Tea Time In America? A Qualified Yes

Let me begin the initial post-election analysis by thanking Rachel Pagano, Ben Wessel, the Republican and Democratic student groups, Owen Witek and Sarah Pfander who manned the computer all night, all the media staff, everyone who bought me beer, Wenbo for the food, and of course my colleague Bert Johnson for his usual astute insights and commentary.  It was another great night at the Grille – greater for some than for others- and we also broke a record for participation on the Presidential Power website – thanks to all the commentators, particularly Conor, Tarsi and Chris, who kept the updates coming.  Kudos to all.

Now on to the Results. We wake up to a Republican-controlled House, as Republicans gained – so far – 60 seats, the biggest pickup for any party since 1946, which puts them at least at 239 seats, with the likelihood as of this writing that they will reach 243, far more than the 218 needed for a majority. The Senate remains under Democratic control, despite at least a 6-seat Republican gain there. As I expected, Colorado is simply too close to call, and results are pending in Washington and Alaska, although the latter should stay Republican (it appears Murkowski might win there as write-in candidate!).  So we are probably looking at a 4-to-5 seat Democrat margin in the Senate, 53—47 or 52-48, pending the results in the remaining three states. The split outcome in the Senate and House is not a surprise, but the absolute size of the Republican seat gain in the House exceeded the Labor Day mean projections of all political scientists, although it fell within the confidence interval of most of their projections.  As I noted in an earlier blog, political scientists are an inherently conservative lot when it comes to forecasting unusual electoral outcomes and, at least in the House, this was an unusually large gain by historical standards.  My quick look at the data indicates that there have only been three greater swings in the House since it achieved its current size of 435 in 1913 – those occurred in 1938, 1942 and 1946.  The Senate Republican increase of 6-7 seats is more modest, historically speaking, having been eclipsed most recently in the 1980 Reagan election, but still a significant gain.

What explains the massive size of the Republican wave?  In retrospect, I think the source of the wave dates to the end of the Bush administration, with the initial bank bailout. The decision by the Bush administration – one ratified by Democrats – to stabilize the banks that were viewed by many taxpayers as a victim of their own bad judgment did not sit well with voters and – as the economic crisis worsened – it triggered a populist backlash that we’ve seen frequently in American history. The most visible manifestation of this movement was the Tea Party. Many on the Left initially dismissed the Tea Party movement because they were partially misled by the media coverage that disproportionately focused on its fringe elements. But, at its core, the Tea Party was driven by a deep concern and even anger over the growing size of government, as reflected in TARP, the auto bailout, the stimulus bill and finally, health care, and the idea that government was more interested in colluding with big business – banks and financial centers, the auto industry, insurance and pharmaceutical companies, etc. – than in protecting voters. The Tea Party, however, was only the most visible manifestation of this dissatisfaction – a dissatisfaction that grew larger when the economy showed little job growth well into the Obama administration.  At its heart, this election turned on the economy.

At least that’s my first read.  As evidence, let’s take a look at the House exit polls,  keeping in mind John Sides’ warning that the reasons people give for why they voted as they did are not necessarily accurate.  We should note at the outset that turnout was down among those groups – youths, Latinos, African-Americans – that formed a core part of the Obama coalition in 2010. At the same time, it was up from 2008 among older voters and they skewed heavily Republican. Indeed, Republican turnout at 36% of the voters was more than the proportion of all adults who call themselves Republicans, and equal to Democrat turnout on Tuesday, despite the Democrats’ registration advantage.  However, independents (28%) were the key here, as they broke decisively for Republican candidates 55%-39%.

Note as well that self-professed conservatives, at 41%, were the biggest voting bloc, with moderates coming in second at 39%.  Liberals, by contrast, constituted only 20% of the voters. Obama voters constituted only 46% of House voters, not much more than McCain voters (45%) – another change from 2008.  Republicans regained their support lost in 2008 among suburban voters, and broke even with Democrats among voters in the West, while retaining their dominance in the South and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest.

So, the composition of the midterm electorate, as I expected, favored the Republicans.  This is consistent with the surge and decline thesis that explains the president’s seat loss in the first midterm more generally and which I’ve talked about extensively in previous posts.

A second factor affecting midterms is that, for some voters, the election is viewed as a referendum on the president. There is evidence that this dynamic was at play yesterday. Among House voters, fully 39% strongly disapproved of the job Obama is doing, while only 23% strongly approved.  Those disapproving went almost entirely for Republican candidates. Thirty-seven percent of House voters said their vote was meant to express opposition to Obama – only 24% said they voted in support of Obama. By a margin of 52-44%, House voters thought Obama’s leadership had hurt the country.

Both these factors – the composition of the electorate, and attitudes toward Obama – were shaped by voters’ dominant issue concern: that government was growing too large against the backdrop of a stagnant economy. By a 56-38% margin, voters thought government was doing too much, and the “doing too much” crowd voted overwhelmingly Republican, 76-21%.  By an almost equally overwhelming 74-24%, voters expressed anger/dissatisfaction with the federal government, and the angry/dissatisfied crowd went Republican 64-33%.

What about the Tea Party movement?  Forty percent of voters supported it – higher than the average support I was detecting among all registered voters across numerous polls – while 31% opposed and 25% were neutral. Neutral voters went slightly (49-47%) for Republicans, but Tea Party supporters broke strongly for Republican candidates 86-11%.  However, more than half of the voters (56%) said their vote was not meant to send a message, for or against, the Tea Party.  In short, the Tea Party movement was not the issue for most voters in this election – the economy was.  Fully 62% of voters said the economy was the most important issue facing the country – far more than any other issue, and they went Republican 53%-44%.  A plurality of voters want the next Congress to cut the deficit (39%) and another 37% want it focus on creating jobs – core Tea Party issues.  Interestingly, voters were divided roughly into thirds on whether the stimulus package had helped, hurt or made no difference to the economy.  Most voters blamed either Wall St. 35%, or George Bush (30%), for the state of the economy more than Barack Obama (23%).  But the Democrats still felt the repercussions of a bad economy.  Efforts by pundits like Frank Rich and E.J. Dionne to make the Tea Party an issue in this election went nowhere.

Interestingly, 48% of Americans want to repeal the health care law, 16% leave as is, and 31% expand it.  Given the divided control of government, I fully expect that no changes will be made to health care, if at all, until after 2012.

Finally, by a slim margin, a plurality of voters (39%) wants to extend the Bush tax cuts for all Americans.

Exit polls offer a first, albeit potentially misleading look at what voters were thinking on Tuesday, so we need to be careful in extrapolating from the results.  Nonetheless, the picture they paint is one consistent with political science forecast models more generally: the midterm electorate was less favorable to Democrats in general (surge and decline), and to Obama specifically (referendum).  To this we might add a third factor, although I have less data on this: the tendency for a more moderate electorate to split government control between what they view as two relatively extreme parties.  By my count, the next two years of divided government means that voters have chosen to split control 38 of the last 68 years, or more than half the time.

The biggest factor driving the vote on Tuesday, however, was the one that incited the Tea Party movement back in late 2008: concern over the size of government against the backdrop of a stagnant economy.  Simply put, with unemployment hovering above 9%, voters were in the mood for change, and they took their frustrations out on the party in power.  The Tea Party was simply a manifestation of this deeper, more widespread voter dissatisfaction – not a cause of it.

If I get a chance, I’ll do a separate analysis of the Senate exit polling data. For now, however, we face divided government again.  The difference is that this time we have a Democratic President and Senate, but a Republican House – a combination we’ve not seen since before the Civil War, if I’m remembering my history.  Because the House in its modern incarnation is designed to empower the majority party, the political dynamics for the next two years will be interesting, to put it mildly.  In a future post I’ll try to preview what I think will happen.

In the meantime, let the 2012 presidential campaign begin!

ADDENDUM:  Jeff Garafano emails to say Bennet is declaring victory in Colorado.  If true, this pushes the Democrats to at least 52 in the Senate, but I am waiting to see whether this goes to a recount.

UPDATE 2:05 pm.  I am told that Colorado is unlikely to go to a recount – Bennet’s lead is big enough that no recount will be triggered and Buck is unlikely to pursue/pay for one on his own.


  1. Very thoughtful observations on the past and future of Obama’s Presidency from Charlie Rose’s guests last night…

    FRANK RICH: It’s definitely a repudiation of [the President’s] governing and particularly about the economy. And to me what’s the disappointment and what’s gone wrong are sort of the same thing. He made a big cause out of health care, which he did not make a major cause of during the campaign. It was not a major issue for him. At some point it turned him on, he spent a year on it, a year when he wasn’t talking about jobs.

    He fielded an economic team that seemed to be above the fray and above the reality of most working Americans, and I think basically that’s the biggest thing that’s done him in. There are many other issues, but it is in the end about the economy and the unemployment rate and the feeling that he seems detached and hasn’t effectively addressed it either in terms of content or in terms of delivering the message.

    CHARLIE ROSE: Kevin, you know how to analyze voters. Independents shifted away from the president. What didn’t they want?

    KEVIN SHEEKEY, FORMER DEPUTY MAYOR, NEW YORK CITY: … Frank is on to something, I think Frank is right. I would take it a step further. When the president won the election in Iowa they weren’t fighting over health care. He was [turning out the vote of] independents who wanted the fighting [between parties] to stop, who wanted to see governance. The end of the Bush era was troublesome to a lot of people.

    … And instead what they saw were big fights in Washington, legislative fights, really confrontational fights where they wanted to see a president. They didn’t want to see a legislator. Legislators can be rewarded for fighting. Chief executives are almost always punished because they are expected to succeed.

    FRANK RICH: I think you’re right. And also I’d add another point. At various times he didn’t even seem to be a legislator. He disappeared. I never understood why the White House took the position we’ll let you know what we want in the health care bill after everyone else has gotten annoyed, yelled about it.

    … WALTER ISAACSON, THE ASPEN INSTITUTE: Absolutely. And you have 9.6 percent unemployment. People around this country are being brutalized. You really have a sense of that there hasn’t been a great focus on the economy.

    CHARLIE ROSE: I don’t want to use the word “feel their pain,” but do you think the president did or did not understand that there was this imperative to deal with that because it was an unacceptable —

    FRANK RICH: Well, he didn’t seem to focus on it every single day and to feel the pain and to be there in the trenches. He didn’t need to focus that much on health care. And I think that he also lost control of the narrative because he did take us away from the big financial crisis. It did sort of save the economy from going off of a cliff, but I think most people think it was he who nationalized the banks instead of Bush. And so I think they didn’t tell the story very well. They didn’t connect on the economy. And it was not a feeling that they were really in charge.

    WALTER ISAACSON: Who was the messenger on the jobs? Obama really wasn’t. Every once in a while he’d appear in a factory or workplace or talk about green jobs.

    CHARLIE ROSE: And that was later rather than earlier.

    WALTER ISAACSON: Yes. He didn’t really talk about it. Joe Biden was given that role, didn’t really do it much. And then he’d have to send out people like Summers and Geithner who would appear on shows like this on Sunday and say, you know, joblessness is a lagging indicator, and we’re seeing some green shoots. It was ridiculous. I mean, it wasn’t even —

    KEVIN SKEEKEY: He didn’t have anybody speaking to the workers. He didn’t have anybody speaking to business. I mean, you don’t have a central person in the administration who talks a language of business so you get a Jack Welch as you did earlier in the show feeling like they don’t talk my language. And you didn’t have people who really felt like they were talking
    to the average guy losing a job.

    … CHARLIE ROSE: John, how does a president regain his narrative? With President Clinton, you had the — In a sense I think it was Oklahoma City had something to do with the kind of turn.

    JOHN HARRIS: This is a very important point and it’s often made by Joe Klein, which is President Clinton stood up one night and said the presidency is still relevant. An enormous statement to have to be the leader of the free world to say “I’m still here at work.” The very next day Oklahoma City happened and bill Clinton got to be president. And that’s not a moment which has happened.

    … Charlie, you invoke President Clinton and I think we’ve read that even President Obama’s reading about President Clinton’s comeback after 1994. I’ve been cautioning people to not draw lessons too glibly from that.

    To some people — to hear some people say it, it’s simply a matter of moving to the right, taking a few polls, finding the center and then it’s a cakewalk on to reelection. That’s not what happened with Bill Clinton in 1995 and’ ‘96.

    He had a grueling, searing personal reappraisal of what he was trying to achieve as president. He had an ideological reappraisal that divided his party. You could walk — and I’m sure Al remembers this. You could walk Capitol Hill in 1995 and easily fill up a notebook full of Democrats who thought bill Clinton was a sellout, who thought his presidency was a failure. This was tough, tough, hard work.

    And he had a gift in that in that his opponent was Newt Gingrich and a group of Republicans who badly overplayed their hand. A bunch of things had to go right for Bill Clinton. And what’s more, you’ll recall, he didn’t win even a majority back then, 49 percent. And people still argue whether it was all the sort of Dick Morris, Mark Penn move to the center that saved Bill Clinton or it was the fact that he stood firm against Newt Gingrich during the government shutdown.

    So the lessons of Bill Clinton, I think, are more tenuous than maybe a lot of people assume.

    AL HUNT: Well, I agree with most of what John said. I think it was clearly Bill Clinton and not Dick Morris.


    … The exit polls show that his economic policy is very unpopular. You know what’s even more unpopular is Wall Street. So to pick up on what Frank said, if he doesn’t identify with people, that’s going to be a problem.

    At the same time, he’s got to be somebody who reaches out and tries to — whether we call it the center or whatever, make some kind of common ground with the opposition.

    For the Republicans, Vin’s right that John Boehner and Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy of California who’s really the great hero of this Republican triumph tonight understand what they have to do. I’m not sure that Jim DeMint and Rand Paul and others have the same view. I doubt they do.

    CHARLIE ROSE: So the battle within the Republican Party is as much — is as big as the battle between Republicans and Democrats, Vin?

    VIN WEBER: I think there’s a significant battle within the Republican Party. I think it’s going to be more easily healed than you, Charlie, or maybe Al think it’s going to be, mainly because it’s easier to be in opposition than it is to be in government and even though we’ve got the majority now in the House of Representatives, we’re still the basic party in opposition.

    … KEVIN SHEEKEY: [P]eople argue that [Obama can triangulate] are looking at 1995, 1996 after the Republicans took control of the Congress and President Clinton was very skillful in Dick Morris’ words triangulating, and winning that argument. That is certainly a possibility.

    I would that that is one possibility but there’s another possibility, too. I remember in 1991 and 1992 when the first president George Herbert Walker Bush had started out after the Gulf war with I think a 90 percent approval rating and his presidency was decimated by the Congressional opposition led very skillfully by Senator George Mitchell, the majority leader of the United States Senate. And they managed to paralyze the Bush presidency at a time of economic distress. So I don’t know how this is going to end out. I’m just saying don’t look at one model from the past, the Clinton model, and say that’s what’s going to happen. There are other models that are possible and we’ll find out….

    … I had lunch not too long ago with a friend at the White House who said wouldn’t we be better off losing one or two Houses of Congress so at least we’re not to blame for everything? And I looked at her and said “Well, have you ever received a subpoena?”


    It’s one thing or if John Harris or Frank Rich call, you cannot take the call. Not answering a subpoena is a very different ball game in government. And she said “Well, I worked for the Clinton administration.” I said, “Have you paid down your legal bills yet, because not everyone has.” And Maggie Williams is still carrying I think a few hundred thousand dollars.

    But Vin said it right and, listen, Vin was in the House, Vin knows. The Republican playbook, it’s not that it’s easy, it’s just entirely predictable. It’s opposition, right? And that’s not going to change. Frank knows that.

    The real question, as John said and Vin said, what’s the president going to do? How’s he going to react? And it’s not going to be enough tomorrow to say mere words of I respect the election results, we’re going to move forward. He’s going to have to come out with policies and action which match that rhetoric, which answer the call. … The onus is on him.

    WALTER ISAACSON: I agree. Also the other difference in the Clinton years is just how much suffering there is now in this country in terms of economic issues. And that, by the way, might cast a whole different light on half-assed investigations in Congress [over Monica Lewinsky] because it may seem frivolous against the backdrop.

    CHARLIE ROSE: Vin is saying yes.

    WALTER ISAACSON: Except Vin is not in the Congress and regardless you’re going to get that. You’re going to get the subpoenas. Look, the deficit reduction commission is going to come out on December 1, and December 2 it will be dead on arrival, right? You’re going to have —

    VIN WEBER: But that will be one thing Obama can do is push that real hard.

    … WALTER ISAACSON: Here’s the craziest thing. If one thing everyone agreed on in this election, Obama and Carly Fiorina, we’re going to listen to Alan Simpson [moderate former Senator in charge of the deficit commission] on December 2, and we’re going to have a solution, some kind of — that’s like the Iraq Study Commission was going to tend Iraq war. It’s nonsense. That’s not going to do anything. But everyone has taken a pass and put it on [co-chair of the Commission] Erskine Bowles and it’s ridiculous.

    … CHARLIE ROSE: Al, what’s your take on this? In other words, on the deficit, come December 1, and there’s a report by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles and they’ve got a vote, they’ve got to have 14 that will agree on some kind of recommendation, would it be wise and is this a point of departure for the president to say “I’m serious about the debt and I’m going to endorse this program and I’ll push it forward, make it part of what I hope to accomplish in terms of setting us on a path of reduce this overwhelming long-term debt we have and the entitlements and the Medicare expenses that are part of it.” Al?

    AL HUNT: Charlie, first, I don’t think they’ll get 14 votes for anything significant, 14 votes to end “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Everybody’s for that…. I don’t think you’re going to get a bipartisan report that says here’s big-ticket items that we can cut the long-term deficit. So what I think they’ll offer is a menu. I’m sure Obama will try to pick and choose parts of that menu, but I don’t think that makes for a consensus.

    … FRANK RICH: All the polls consistently show that the deficit, while a high priority to everyone in politics and in Washington, is not one of the highest priorities of the public, or it falls lower than employment issues and other issues. So it’s — to me that’s not even — it’s something of a manufactured issue in the political arena that may not speak that much to people, no matter how much protestors talk about it.

    … JOHN HARRIS: I think it’s more serious than Frank says. And I understand his point that people don’t have strong feelings about the arcane economic arguments of how important the debt is or isn’t as a percentage of GDP and all the rest. I do think, particularly for independent voters, spending and deficits are not just an economic issue, they’re for many of them a moral issue. And they’ve become a proxy for their views about why government doesn’t work, why Washington is broken. And they do matter. I think they do matter lot politically.

    … Here’s the thing. It’s now more out of control. We had one-party rule until tonight. You now have divided government. People think we had gridlock in Washington yesterday. They actually to have gridlock in Washington tomorrow, right? Listen, Vin Weber was a great Member [of Congress] but we did not elect a slew of moderate Republicans to Congress tonight, we just didn’t. And we don’t have a slew of moderate Democrats being swept in either. And, you know, I think that’s the real problem. It is a question, I think as Vin says, what’s the president going to do and is he going to reach across the aisle? Is the policy going to match that? But Congress has moved into a two-year period of gridlock.

  2. Now that the Democrats have lost the House and domestic deadlock appears a reality it will be really interesting to see how the Obama administration tackles it’s foreign policy objectives. Without the mandate for change in the domestic sphere, as the Republican majority looks to reign in the Democrats and their policies, the door is now open for Obama to focus on key foreign policy issues like the situation in the Middle East and relations with Europe. I think Democrats strength will be solid in terms of change in these areas given the greater importance of the John Kerry led Senate foreign relations committee as opposed to it’s House counterpart. Clearly if Obama wants to be more than simply a one term president he needs some victories or, at least, some clear progress in issues affecting the United States abroad. Obama can rebound from yesterday’s immense loss with increased energy in the sphere of foreign relations which remains a highly important arena for winning all important public opinion back home stateside.

  3. It seems like there has been a trend in recent elections of people voting along more ideological lines in Congressional races. That is, they are less likely to consider the benefits of having a committee chair as their congressman, and consider how he or she will vote on more national issues rather than what good he or she can do for the district. Is there any data backing this up, and did the trend continue with this election? Is this a good thing or a bad thing, on the whole? Even though I don´t like the outcome it produced, part of me feels like it´s better that people are voting on principle rather than patronage.

  4. Fraz – There is evidence suggesting that elections have been more nationalized in recent years. by my calculations, 2006 was the first midterm in which national forces outweighted local ones in explaining the outcome. I haven’t made the calculations for 2010, but wouldn’t be surprised if national forces again outweighed local ones.

    I’m not sure, however, that voters are voting along more ideological lines than previously. Part of the problem is that they can only vote for one of two candidates – if both candidates are drawn from the extremes of the party, it might appear that voters have become more ideological even if their preferences haven’t changed.

    I assume by “patronage” you mean voting on the basis of what the Senator/Representative has brought to the district – i.e., more goodies (aka pork). Is that right?

  5. Yes, “patronage” was a sloppy word to choose, I just meant the ability to bring money to the district. I’m not really a huge anti-earmark guy, I just also think that, since Congressmen do have an impact on national policy, it’s probably not a great outcome when people vote for someone whose general political views they oppose because they’re dependent on the guy’s committee assignment bringing money in.

    As for whether voters are more ideological or not, it seems that, regardless of how ideological the candidates are, when voters reject senior congressmen they are voting along more ideological lines. A challenger candidate can only justify his candidacy based on ideology, since seniority is so important in terms of bringing money in, so can’t you really say that, regardless of the ideological extremism of either the candidates or the voters, voters are making an ideological decision when they reject a senior congressman? Obviously there could be other factors like scandal, etc, but all things being equal.

    To use a specific example, my hometown district in South Texas just voted out Solomon Ortiz, who had been our congressman for 27 years. The district is pretty blue collar and undeveloped, and probably more dependent on the money that Ortiz brought in than the typical district, so there was definitely a strong incentive to consider seniority in voting. He was also a pretty moderate Democrat, and his challenger was a relatively inoffensive (especially for this election cycle) Republican. I’m sure on any kind of partisan index, the two would not be too far apart. Still, even though there was not a gaping ideological division between the candidates, wouldn’t ideology still be the sole motivator for voting against him, considering the very concrete downside that losing that funding represents?

  6. Matthew,
    Have you read David Paul Kuhn’s The Neglected Voter? He discusses the movement by white male voters away from the Democratic Party since the rise of the McGovern wing of the party.
    He notes that the usual level of white male votes for Democrats in the years from 1968 through 2006 was about 38%. In an article about the 2008 election, he wrote that McCain was ahead in the polls until the bank meltdown, and argues the McCain’s response was the final straw for those in this group that might have stayed with him.
    Obama got 41% of this vote and immediately moved to prove to them, against their hopes, that he supported big government and was McGovernite in his foreign policy. As would be expected, they felt misled.
    Here it is important to emphasize that the reaction is not about race. Obama’s election strategy was to be someone in whom everyone could see what they wanted to see. This is a disastrous strategy for governing. You will, in you first decision, prove some of the people wrong and they will feel betrayed. The media also played a role in avoiding discussion of those relationships and statements that might have told the public who Obama really is.
    The down-ticket losses for the Democrats are even more damaging. They have lost the middle of the country, both geographically and economically. But the situation is probably not much better for the Republicans. They have to eliminate the “country-club” tone of their party or something rather dramatic is likely to occur in our political party system.
    To read Kuhn’s 2008 article go to

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