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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