Nov 6, 2014

The Exaggeration of the Repudiation of President Barack Obama: Analysis of the 2014 Midterm Election Results

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The Results of the 2014 Midterm Elections

In a nutshell, Republicans did well.  Well enough in fact in key Senate races that they took control of the Senate, gaining at least 6 seats to become the majority party in that chamber.  As of Wednesday, November 5, the Senate is poised to consist of 2 independents, 44 Democrats and 52 Republicans for the next two years beginning January 2015.  There are a couple of races still to be decided in both the Senate and the House, so Republican gains may increase by a few more seats.  In the House of Representatives, Republicans also gained seats.  Republicans will increase their seats from 233 to 243 seats in the House in January, maybe more.  As for the 36 Governor races across the country, Republicans saw gains as well.  With the exception of Pennsylvania, Republicans increased their number of states with Republican governors.  Pennsylvania is the only state that was previously held by a Republican governor and saw the Democrat win the election instead.

The Analysis: A Repudiation of President Obama?

The day after the election, the partisans, pundits and surrogates quickly offered their analysis of the election outcome.  Since Republicans gained seats and Democrats lost seats, the common conclusion became that Democratic losses were a repudiation of President Obama.  Pundits, including Political Science folks like myself, and partisans who make this claim are forming an analysis that assumes government is composed of solely the president, intentional or their part or not.  As overly focused on the president as the American people are, they still see government itself as composed not just of a president, but as being run by two opposing political parties.  Could some voters have been upset with policy choices of President Obama when they went to the polls?  Yes, of course this is true of Republicans, and this is also most likely true of some independents.  However, I argue that claims of the election results as signifying a voter repudiation of President Obama are not completely false, but are greatly exaggerated.  The media, this includes pundits, political talk show hosts, and newspaper op-ed writers, has over dramatized and over simplified the outcome of the election.  To discuss the results with reference to the complexity of the American political system, American politics, and the era of polarization would seem to lose viewers and readers.  The path of least resistance is to oversimplify, over dramatize, and focus on the figure in the government that viewers are most familiar with and curious about.

Why the 2014 Election Results Are NOT a Repudiation of Obama

There are multiple reasons, most of which are firmly based in sound political science theories, as to why viewing the Republican gains as a voter repudiation of the Democratic president are naive.

1.  If 2014 is a repudiation of President Obama, 2010 should be as well. 

And for that matter, shouldn't 2012 be one too?  But that doesn't work because President Obama received a majority of the popular vote and electoral votes, thus winning re-election.  If voters were repudiating Barack Obama in 2010 and in 2014, but loved him in between in 2012, they sure are finicky in their feelings towards the President.  Those that claim the Republican gains of 2014 are a signal of opposition to the policies of President Obama should make the same claim about 2010.  In 2010 Republicans gained seats in both the House and the Senate and Democrats lost seats in both chambers, resulting in Republicans taking back the House of Representatives from Democrats who had won control in 2006.  While Republicans won seats in the Senate in 2010 as well, unseating a few Democratic incumbents such as Russ Feingold, they did not win enough to get the majority of 51 or greater to take control of that chamber.  Nonetheless, 2010 was a huge victory for the Republican party and a huge loss for the Democratic party.  Democrats had emerged the victors in the previous two federal elections, 2006 and 2008, taking control of Congress from the Republicans who had held it since the 1994 elections.  Therefore, following the logic of the post-election pundits and partisans, 2010 must have been a repudiation of President Obama who had been elected in 2008.  Not so fast.  If that were the case, then why did voters overwhelmingly re-elect President Obama just two years later in 2012?  Obama saw only a slight increase in his approval rating from 2010 to 2012, so this cannot be explained by any significant increase in voter love of the president.  Yes, President Obama's approval leading up to the election was in the low 40s in terms of percent "approve", but most of that disapproval comes from Republican voters while only a small fraction of it comes from independents who would cause his number to go above or below 50%.  The loss of some independents in approval does not all by itself cause a loss for Democrats in general.  When independents were voting this election in states where their votes predict the outcome, they were largely voting against the party in power, rather than against Barack Obama.  President Obama's approval ratings did dip before the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections and rose to as high as 52% before the 2012 Presidential election in which he won re-election; however, correlation is NOT causation.  Approval ratings of the president can in fact reflect the feelings of the voters regarding the party in power as a whole (see point #2 below).  I argue that 2014 was no more a repudiation of President Obama than 2010 was.  In fact, the role of President Obama in predicting the outcome of those midterm elections was minimal.  The explanation lies more in voter perception of the party in control, rather than voter feelings regarding one individual in control.  There is limit to the logic that votes against non-Obama Democrats are solely a judgement on President Obama.  Link: Gallup Approval Ratings of President Obama

2.  Political science theories

The Electoral Reward and Punishment Model.  This model purports that voters either reward or punish the party they believe is currently in control of government.  If things are going well for most voters (mainly independents), they will reward the party in power.  If things are not going well for voters, again we are really only talking about independents, then they punish the party in power. I isolate this factor to independents only because voters have become very partisan in the polarized political environment we are now in.  Therefore, Republican voters will vote for Republican candidates and Democratic voters will vote Democratic regardless of conditions.  This is going to be the case for the vast majority of partisan voters, unless their is a major event or circumstance of a level that would cause some partisans to switch sides temporarily.  Therefore, independents who do not stick with one party, will base their decision largely on how they perceive the country is doing, and which party they believe is in control of government at that time.  Since Democrats were in control of government (Congress and the Presidency) from 2009 to the end of 2010, voter assessment was of the Democratic party in November 2010.  After Republican victories in November 2010, government consisted of a Republican controlled House, but a Democratic controlled Senate and Presidency. The resulting perception remained that Democrats control government.  Voters are not complex in their assessment of government control.  There is not much appreciation for the fact that opposition party control of one chamber significantly hampers the ability of the other party to take action and have legislative successes despite having control of the other chamber and the White House.  A bill must pass in both chambers to go to the President's desk for signing into law.

Partisans, pundits and news talk show hosts are claiming that the Democratic loss in November is more specifically a repudiation of Obama's policies.  Again, this is oversimplifying the results and neglecting key facts.  First, the president's policies are liberal and are that of his party.  Much like Bush's policies were conservative and hawkish, also similar to the policies of the Republican party at the time.  This does not mean there aren't some important divisions within the party, but the policies are pretty consistent overall between the president and his party.  Second, voters do not necessarily prefer conservative (Republican) policies over liberal (Democratic) policies.  It must be restated that Democrats are liberal and will vote with Democrats, while Republicans are conservative and will vote with Republicans.  Therefore, the voters that I am largely referring to are the small slice of the electorate that does not identify with a particular party.  It is these voters that decide the outcome of many elections in which Democratic and Republican voters are evenly matched.  If independents preferred one ideology over the other, than why do they seem to jump back and forth so frequently?  The move from one party to the other is solely an assessment of current conditions, and not an assessment of an ideology and its policies.  If voters are unhappy with the current state of things, such as the state of the economy, foreign affairs, income levels, or government action, they will "throw the scoundrels out", or punish them, and give the other party a chance.  If things do not improve, they will throw that party out, and go back to the other party since America is a two-party system and there is really no other choice but that one.

In 2002 and 2004 Republicans did well because Americans were rallied behind their government as a result of the September 11th attacks, giving government much of the benefit of the doubt.  The economy was doing well and Americans perceived that the government was taking action to deal with the threat.  Therefore Republicans, the party in power during running up to both of those elections (Republicans had control of Congress since 1994 and the White House since the 2000 election) they were rewarded.  In 2006, Republicans were punished as voters were unhappy with the lack of progress in both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, increasingly feeling that the Iraq invasion was a mistake, concerned and saddened by the frequent news of soldier deaths and IED maiming, and dismayed at the federal governments lack of adequate response to conditions in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and a doubling of the national debt over the Bush years and years of Republican control of Congress.  Democrats took control of the House and Senate in 2006.  By 2008, things had only gotten worse with the Great Recession of 2008.  The 2008 Presidential election was a further punishment of Republicans in Congress and in the White House as Democrats increased their numbers and won the White House over the Republican candidate. Voters still blamed Republicans who were seen as being in control for much of the time period leading up to 2008.  Two years later, with a Democratic president and a Congress that had been controlled by Democrats for four years, the voters handed out another punishment, this time to the Democrats.  The economy had not improved.  Democrats lost seats in both chambers in the 2010 midterm elections, resulting in their loss of the House to Republicans.  By the 2012 Presidential election, the economy had begun improving, which meant that voters would reward the party perceived to be in power.  This party was the Democrats as they control two of the three seats of power, the White House and the Senate.  However, by 2014, government dysfunction was the problem of the moment.  Since 2010, voters were witnessing a government that was increasingly gridlocked and unable to adequately respond to national concerns such as the growing income inequality gap and pass basic laws dealing in topics with elements that Americans agreed on. 

The President's party, whether Republican or Democrat, typically loses seats in the midterm election.  Historically, this has even been the case when the sitting president during the midterm election cycle had an approval rating above 50%, sometimes well above.  It just follows that a determination by voters about the effectiveness or competence of who is in control of government will drag down those officials, including the president, of the party in control.  Midterm elections are more difficult for the President's party because they are going to lose a number of seats that were gained when the party could ride the presidential coattails of the popular, and thus winning, presidential party nominee during the previous presidential election.  While feeling about a president should not completely be neglected in a midterm analysis, it should be recognized that voter satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a president is only one variable and not explain most or all of the votes for the other party. 

3. The map favored Republicans in 2014 for Senate, but may favor Democrats in 2016

The overwhelming majority of states that had Senate seats up for grabs were red conservative states where Republican voters tend to outnumber conservative voters.  Some of these states were gains for Republicans because in the mass anti-Republican waves of 2006 and 2008 a moderate Democrat was able to grab the independent vote and win the state.  This was bound to be undone as conditions returned to normal and the conservative state voted in a way that more reflected the ideological leaning of the state and as conditions were not what voters wanted leading to the loss of those independents to the Republican party.  In fact, over time, these states are appearing to get even redder.  Only the Republican wins in Blue states are significant supporting arguments for a Democratic punishment year.  Most of the states in the midsection of the country and the South were states with Senate elections this year.  Senate elections stretched from Montana down through the plains states to Texas and then across the deep South.  Link: Senate election map

4.  Turnout among Democrats is lower in midterm elections

The Democratic party has a higher proportion of minorities, youth, and single women.  These groups tend to have lower education and lower income rates, which means they have lower probabilities of voting.  The voter turnout rate among all eligible voters drops from 50-65% in a Presidential election to under 50%, sometimes as low as 40% in a midterm election when the presidency is not on the ballot.  Therefore, Democrats are hurt significantly in voter turnout in midterm elections.  This explains why they can do well in a presidential but not well in a midterm election when there is not a major event such as a recession or 9/11 driving voting behavior.  Republican voters are overall wealthier and white, which means they have higher voter turnout rates due to higher percentages of high income earners and higher education rates.  These are the voters that show up for presidential and midterm elections.  The Democratic party is more diverse, but with that diversity comes groups with historically lower voter turnout rates.  This in addition to the fact that the map favored Republicans in the Senate should not be so easily neglected by pundits and hosts since the removal of these two variables may have meant only a modest gain for Republicans, and perhaps falling short of picking up a majority in the Senate. 

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  1. If some citizens want to make the claim that Republicans are gonna win the Presidency just because of the 2014 mid-term elections, then they might be confused. Just because of the mid-terms elections went in the Republicans favor, does not mean Republicans will continue to be equally as fortunate. Mid-term elections generally favor Republicans because Democrats typically vote less in mid-terms than they do for Presidential elections. Thus, a reason for a good Republican turnout in the 2014 mid-terms. If some people want to make the claim of the first sentence in my comment, then look at the 2010 midterm election and how Republicans did well in that election, however Obama won reelection in 2012 for president. You cannot generalize about politics just because one party does well one year.

  2. I agree that just because the republicans kept the House and won back the Senate, does not mean repudiation of Obama. There was very logical information to back it up such as the punishment of the party in control and lower democrat turnouts in midterm elections. However, I believe that since republicans only need a net gain of 6 seats in the Senate and got 7, possibly 8 pending on the Louisiana senate election, and gained the largest majority in the House since WWII, then this is a major punishment by voters to the Democratic party. I also believe that if the president does have some kind of policy that miraculously benefits all Americans, then the Democratic party will be punished again n 2016 by losing control of the White House as well as of Congress.

  3. Not really sure what happened, but the Republicans won outright. Every major office up for re-election in Georgia was won by a Republican. I believe that democrats did not vote because they did not see this as a big election with major consequences. I believe democrats are tired of their party and for some reason really believe that President Obama is at fault. He is constantly having to fight to get policies passed. This election will give the republicans the power that they really believe they needed to bully the President.You are right, he won the popular and electoral votes, so he can't be as bad as the republicans and media make him out to be. The 2016 election's outcome will be much different as you stated and favor the democrats.

  4. Shelby Gurrera GPC-NewtonApril 25, 2015 at 10:54 AM

    The fact that Republicans took back the Senate was based on the fact that Republicans had more seats up for re-election. As stated in the article, that may not be the case for the 2016 election. It looks like it will favor the Democrats. Also because of the fact that more people that generally vote Republican show up to mid-term elections. There are more Republicans voting in the mid-term elections than general elections based on the type of people who generally vote Republican. Theses people are older, make more money, and are more religious. They would have a greater chance of showing up to the polls during mid election than youth, minorities, and women. This unfortunately lowers the actual competition of elections.

    If more people would show up to the polls for not only mid-term elections and general elections but for all elections, there would be a more representative body in Congress. It would reflect more of what the peopled wanted. If barely any people that vote Democrat vote in mid-term elections, chances are Republicans will keep winning mid-term elections solely based on the fact that more Republican voters show up to vote. I personally think that this hurts Congress. This could be the case as to why our government is divided. Congress struggles to get work done because Congress and the President are not controlled by the same people. If more people would vote in all elections, then the same party might control Congress and the President. Then maybe our government could get more accomplished, but that’s just a thought.

  5. I really like point 2 about the science theory. The electoral reward and punishment model is really cool because it gages how voters will potentially vote. I don’t know what I think about or if I like the polarization in government we currently have. But it does give candidates a certain group to focus on since democrats will more than likely vote for their party and the same for republicans regardless of the situation. The fact that chambers can be split into different party Ideologies is good and bad, a good thing is that everything stays balanced and one chamber does not dominate. A bad thing is that a lot of bills and laws get hampered. It is crazy how to see how punishment and reward goes back and forth. One big event could happen placing massive amounts of pressure on the party in power to make the right decision and handle the situation correctly. Depending on the way the situation is handled they will be rewarded or punished, this just shows how sensitive politics are. The lower voter turnouts for the Democratic Party during midterm elections are very sad. They don’t realize how much more influence they would have if they would just go out in vote in all elections, not just the general election. So this makes it very hard to take Democrats who complain so much about laws and policies when they are not even doing their part to help change them.

  6. Angelique VirgleMay 4, 2015 at 8:03 PM

    If people think that just because the Republicans took control of the House and Senate that a Republican will win the next presidency, they are sadly mistaken. I agree with you when you stated how the different groups that support the Democratic party are less likely to vote during midterm elections, which results in the Democratic party being hurt significantly in voter turnout during these elections. Even with this happening during midterm elections, Democrats always get full support from their party supporters during the presidential elections. Also, the reward and punishment model explains why Democrats will win the next presidency. We have a Democrat president right now and he is doing a pretty good job in office, even with the Republicans in Congress trying to stop his plans on making a better country for us. As a result of this, independents will reward the Democrats by voting "Democrat" for the next presidency. So, the Republican may continue to win midterms, but don't hold your breathe on winning the presidency because it may not happen for you.

  7. There is logic in the idea that voting results cannot be deduced accurately due to the fact that independent voters who are non-partisan can shift the balance of winning between Republicans and Democrats anytime. Independent voters, like the article mentions, only vote for a party “in power” after judging their actions and then either they reward or punish them, which is known as the “The Electoral Reward and Punishment Model”. This is the reason why President Obama had won reelection despite the political pundits predicting his repudiation in 2014. I also agree that the pundits and political analytic experts are quick and unreasonable in displaying results of who will win election based on the seats gained in the House or Senate. As the article states, President Obama’s approval rate was below 50% because large part of the disapproval in conveyed by Republican voter and only a “small fraction” from independent voters. The analysis of the author that “correlation is NOT causation” therefore is admirable and also offers a better way to represent the political analysis before elections.

    I also agree with the other two reasons of why 2014 cannot be the repudiation of President Obama. The “overwhelming majority of states that had Senate seats up for grabs were red conservative states” and thus it is feasible that Senate would be dominated by Republicans. Moreover, because the Republican voters are majorly compose of wealthy whites it means they take equal interest in the midterm and presidential elections. Whereas, the Democratic voters consist mainly of minorities who have “lower education and lower income rates”. Therefore the voter turnout for midterm election “when presidency in not on the ballot” drops below 50%. Overall such reasons do not justify the predictions of the political pundits as they do not take all the above mentioned factors into account.

  8. This midterm election was not any different from 2010. Republicans gained more of the seats in both Senate and House of Representatives. Having a majority in Congress and having the President be a minority (Democrats) can cause friction in the legislation process. Independent voters change the control of the seats based on what they see occur in Congress and during the President's term.
    President Obama has difficulties with Congress but it did not just occur because of the Republicans wins in the Midterm. With the political theory aspect, the blame on government failures fall on the president whether Democrat or Republican. The parties still vote for their party yet blame the president when things become troublesome. Lastly, I don't think you can project the next presidential leader based on the previous midterm election. Ideas and events occur in between leaving the vote up to the masses at the time of election. JMB

  9. I was actually surprised that so many Republican won seats in the 2014 election due to the budget gridlock that happened the previous year. At the time I figured people would be aggravate with the childish ways our representatives were handling disagreements in policy, but I guess not. I did not, however, think that it was related to how Obama was doing in office. Over time I have noticed that there is a constant back and forth between the two parties’ control over the two chambers of congress. So the article’s point about the population punishing or rewarding the current party, who is in power, made a lot of sense to me. Especially, if the party is really just fighting over who gets the votes from independent voters.

    It also makes sense that Democrats would have a lower voter turnout in midterm elections as most of their supporters are of lower income. I was a single mom for 9 years before my recent marriage and didn’t have the time or see the need to vote in midterm elections. However, after my marriage I had more time and energy to keep up with what was going on in government.

  10. If voters are disappointed with the economy and policies that they believe a particular president has been the sole cause of they will associate those decisions with the political party. Which will effect rather the president is Democratic or Republican. It does not effect midterm elections. Low voter turn out from Democratic voters is what causes Democrats to lose control of Congress. I am tired of hearing that low voter turn out is because of low income people. Low voter turnout is because of education of politics. Americans need to be educated in plain words. Young people get excited about getting their driver's license. They study for their test and get them regardless of family income. Americans need be taught to decide what their values are and which political party has the same values. When they choose party they must be taught how important it is to vote in every election not just presidential election in order for their party to be in control of Congress. Unfortunately, many think the president has all the power. In other words Democrats did not lose Senate because of President Obama they lost because Democratic voters did not understand the importance of midterm elections.

  11. David ShakibanasabJuly 19, 2015 at 11:24 AM

    I feel that the main reason is the lower voter turn out during midterm elections. Like the article said the majority of voter population doesn’t have the time or means to keep up with the midterms, and the majority of midterm voters are ether far left or far right voters. As for the independents, I have my own theory. What if they aren’t trying to punish or reward the party in control but just trying to keep the check in balance system in place? It seems to make since to me. Of course there are exception, like after 9/11.

  12. The examples you gave are all great to emphasize the fact that Americans regardless of party affiliation, race, education level or any other demographic characteristics need to stay completely informed for themselves. Opinion polls and other data that is generated by bias news sources is not a legitimate way to gain knowledge that could lead to casting a vote. If the media is claiming that the Republican gains were a hit to Obama directly citizens should then look into the matter for themselves before forming an opinion. It is very likely that if they did they would be able to draw the same conclusions that are presented in this article. The Electoral Reward and Punishment model is a reality among the electorate. Ideally people voting would do some research before choosing to reward or punish a certain party. Especially with a presidential election around the corner, I plan to stay interested and updated on all the ups and downs of each candidate's path to being elected and I hope the rest of the voting public will too.

  13. I find the blog very interesting, and feel like the information being discussed is very informative. I feel that the information about more republican voters going out to vote then democrats voters during the midterm election is true. The Republican Party contains older and conservative people that have more money that understands the importance of voting during the midterm. The Democratic Party have a great amount of young and minorities that don’t fully understand the importance of voting in the midterm elections, and feels that voting in the general election is all that matter. Perhaps if the Democratic voters knew the consequences of not voting in the midterm election there would be a better turn out for the Democratic Party in the midterm elections. The fact that the Republican Party do not have a huge turn out during the general election possibly balance the parties out. I believe the Republican voters feels that it is not important for them to vote in the general election if they have a huge turnout in the midterm election, because if they control the congress then maybe they will get some of the things they want or can stop some polices they don’t agree with. I completely agree with the fact that if more people showed up to the midterm and general elections it would reflect what the people wants, and the government would be as one because the same party will control the congress and president possibly.

  14. "Therefore, Democrats are hurt significantly in voter turnout in midterm elections. This explains why they can do well in a presidential but not well in a midterm election when there is not a major event such as a recession or 9/11 driving voting behavior. Republican voters are overall wealthier and white, which means they have higher voter turnout rates due to higher percentages of high income earners and higher education rates."
    I found this incredibly interesting. I live am lucky enough to live in a higer income area with my parents, but still work a full time job. I think the system is pretty broken when it comes down the above mentioned in an election.I am not able to take time off to go and vote at every election so I see this first hand. It is also made incredibly difficult to vote for non-American born citizens to vote. When I went to vote for the first time I had drivers license with the voter registration and the star on my ID which means I had shown my American passport to the DMV when I registered to vote.
    Their system said I was able to vote, but they would not let me vote until my parents brought my American passport and Naturalization Certificate.
    It seems as though they are trying to make it as hard as possible to vote. Why is that?
    Katie Holcroft