2010 US mid-term elections: the shellacking

Some surprising conclusions emerge from looking more closely at the message sent by voters in the US mid-term elections. This is a report on the results of an election day poll commissioned from Greenberg Rosner Associates by the Campaign for America’s Future and Democracy Corps.
Robert L Borosage
30 November 2010

1994 was dubbed the ‘bloodbath.’  Bush called 2006 a “thumpin.”  2010 will clearly be remembered as a ‘shellacking,’ the president’s term for an election rout in which Republicans picked up over 60 seats in the House, a record for post-World War II elections.  Republicans now have a majority in the Congress not seen since 1946 in what became known as the ‘Do Nothing Congress.’

Not surprisingly, Republicans, conservatives and tea parties are claiming a broad mandate.  The wiser realize this wasn’t an endorsement of their policy or party, and describe it as a repudiation of the President.  But most can’t help themselves.  The “unmistakable message,” said incoming Speaker John Boehner is “change course.”  And that starts with “cutting spending instead of increasing it, reducing the size of government instead of expanding it.”  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vows to force votes on repealing health care again and again (part of his bipartisan cooperation plan to limit the president to one term). Incoming Financial Services Chair Spencer Bachus launched an assault on financial reform, saying that the Volcker Rule which limits proprietary trading will hurt the profits and shareholders of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan.  Future House Majority leader Erik Cantor calls for a “no cost jobs plan” – featuring making current tax rates permanent and passing trade accords.  Future House Budget Director Paul Ryan says it is time to start cutting Social Security and Medicare

Is that the message that voters sent?  It is worth taking a harder look.  The Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) and Democracy Corps released an Election Day poll done by Greenberg Rosner Associates, probing the attitudes of voters, and drop off voters (those who vote in 2008 and not in 2010.  (For full copy of the poll go here.  For graphs go here.)

The findings are clear.  The economy was by far the dominant issue.  Democrats were rebuked for the failure to create jobs, but there is little sign that voters embraced the conservative agenda or ideology.  The turnout reflected the energy of the right and the demoralization or disengagement of parts of the president’s base.  Voters are worried about the country - and looking for a bold agenda and vision that will put us back on the right track  - and back to work.  Other than on the right, they haven’t given up hope in the president. 

The economy, no surprise

The election was largely an expression of voters’ dissatisfaction with the economy.  The president had it right when he said that if the economy were growing and unemployment down at 5%, Democrats would have fared much better.

Instead, the public sees the country on the wrong track.  They are worried about their own financial situation.  They don’t see jobs or growth, while the deficits have been run up, even as the big banks that caused the crisis have been bailed out.  In the CAF poll, 39% of voters saw their vote as against our economic course, and voted overwhelmingly against Democrats.

The problem is not that Obama was too liberal or that he did too much.  If anything, it was that he did too little.  The Recovery Act stemmed the free fall of the economy, but was not big enough to get the economy going.  The increase in public spending was barely enough to counter state and local cuts.  The decision to continue the Bush-Paulson-Geithner-Bernanke policy of rescuing the banks without reorganizing them has come at a high cost  - both for the economy, with zombie banks still not unlocking credit, and politically.  Republicans effectively conflated the bank bailout with the recovery to suggest Obama was running up deficits to bail out Wall Street while ignoring Main Street.  This became a centerpiece of the Tea Party populism. 

Our CAF poll and the exit polls suggest this populist anger at the banks was a significant factor.  In our poll, big banks are the most unpopular term we tested, ranking even below Sarah Palin.  They are unpopular across partisan lines.  When asked in exit polls where blame for the economy should go, 29% said George Bush, while 35% chose Wall Street (23% said Barack Obama).  But those choosing Wall Street voted for Republicans 56% to 42%.  Republicans managed both to sell themselves to the banks as their protectors and to the voters as critics of the bailout. 

Voter dismay at deficits is connected to the failure of the economy, not divorced from it.  They are worried about deficits generally, but particularly because the spending has failed to create jobs on Main Street, while banks are bailed out.  The government is seen both as wasting money and lavishing it on entrenched interests. 

The changed electorate:  the enthusiasm gap

The voters that turned out this year probably would have elected John McCain president.  Seniors came out in large numbers - a record 23% of the electorate, up from 16% in 2010 - and they voted in even higher percentages against Democrats.  Young people by contrast came out in markedly lower numbers - from 18% in 2008 to 11% this year.  And their support for Democrats slipped.  Similarly, blacks and Hispanics were a lower percentage of the vote - from 21 in 2008 to 18 in 2010.  The rising American electorate - single women, minorities and young people - that propelled Obama to victory, constituted 46% of the vote in 2008 and only 40% in 2010, and the Democratic share of their vote declined from 67% to 60%.    

The largest Democratic declines came among blue collar, non college education white men.  Obama didn’t win these voters in 2008, winning only 41% of their votes.  This year Democratic share plunged to 29%.    

Self-described conservatives came out in large numbers, totaling 42% of the vote, up from about 34% in 2008. And they voted Republican in larger percentages than in the past.   The Tea Party mobilization, the Republican strategy of obstruction, the Fox-Limbaugh echo chamber no doubt contributed to this showing.   Independent voters went from providing Democrats with 51% of their votes in 2008 to providing only 38% in 2010.   This likely represents the turnout of Republican leaning independents rising while Democratic leaners were less engaged.

No ideological sea change

Yet claims that this election represents a repudiation of liberalism or a conservative sea change are overblown.  CAF/Democracy Corps polls have tracked basic value choices over time.  They show no strong conservative trend. 

For example in the CAF poll, voters believe homosexuality should be accepted as normal by 56-33, a margin that has been growing steadily.   Moderates and independents side with Democrats, isolating conservative voters.  Similarly, majorities favor pulling out of Afghanistan rather than staying and getting the job done, again with moderates joining liberals and independents join Democrats, isolating conservatives and Republicans. On regulation, opinion is divided as to whether regulation is necessary to protect the public or frequently does more harm than good. (In the wake of the financial collapse and the BP disaster, this shows a remarkable skepticism towards regulation.)

On investment to create jobs vs. fears that spending will increase taxes, voters are virtually split  - and not much different than where they were two years ago.  Even in an election where conservatives came out in large numbers, this remains a center-left country on most social issues.

America besieged

We tested different statements about the country on voters.  The statement that gained the greatest endorsement was in many ways the most bleak, describing a country in long-term decline, in need of a vision or strategy for its growth.  Also ranking high were indictments of special interests controlling Washington; the wealthy and money in politics distorting both parties, bipartisan bickering getting in the way of solving problems. 

For the voters that came out this year, ironically, the weakest of these  - although still garnering majority support, was a conservative indictment of out of control spending. 

No mandate for the conservative agenda

Similarly, voters are a long way from embracing the conservative agenda, as even Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour admits.  Even while winning the election, Republicans remain less popular than the president.   Republicans haven’t gained in popularity; Democrats have fallen.  And voters remain wary of the core of the conservative agenda.

For example, Eric Cantor just released his platform as potential House Majority Leader, saying that Republicans would move to repeal health care reform, cut $100 billion out of domestic spending, and adopt a “no cost jobs plan, “that involves sustaining current tax rates, even for the wealthy, and passing free trade accords. 

But although Republicans devoted millions in ads in blistering the government takeover of health care, the public, asked in exit polls about what Congress should do, remained divided, with 47% saying expand it or leave it as it is, and 48% saying repeal it.

On tax cuts, the Republican position is a distinct minority of Tuesday’s voters, with 39% saying they should be extended to all, while more than half the voters supported extending them to only those with incomes under $250,000 (37%) or not extending them all (15%).   

On spending cuts, voters are again of mixed minds.  Asked the first priority by exit polls, as many 37% said spending to create jobs as said (39%) reducing the deficit.

The CAF poll asked voters to choose between a jobs agenda including rebuilding infrastructure, extending middle class tax cuts, investing in science and technology vs. an agenda drawn off the Republican Pledge of cutting spending, extending all tax cuts and providing small businesses with a tax cut.  The electorate that voted in Republicans preferred the investment agenda by 51- to 43%.

Moreover, when you get to how to lower deficits, voters have a very different agenda in mind than Republicans. Rep. Paul Ryan, soon to be chair of the Senate Budget Committee, argues that it is time to begin reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits.  Incoming Speaker John Boehner calls for rising the retirement age for Social Security to 70.  Voters are having none of this. But as the CAF poll demonstrates, voters want politicians to keep their hands off Social Security and Medicare.  When asked whether federal deficits are so serious that we have to do things like raising the Social Security retirement age to 70, or that politicians should stay away from Social Security and Medicare, more than two thirds of US voters (69%) chose protecting Social Security and that included majorities of conservatives, and Republicans, swing voters and independents.

Similarly, Cantor’s commitment to passing more trade accords as part of a “no cost” jobs agenda runs into what is a growing public skepticism about trade, and a desire for a much stronger position to revive US manufacturing that transcends partisan divides. 

When we contrasted a Democratic position advocating tough trade policies – “challenge countries like China, end subsidies to corporations that ship jobs abroad, stop passing NAFTA like trade deals with a Republican position calling for increasing exports with more trade accords and getting the government out of the way,” the voters chose the former by 51-40%.

Open to presidential leadership

Even more remarkably, the voters who handed Democrats such losses on Tuesday, show remarkable openness to the president offering a bold vision for jobs in the wake of the election.

We tested the following hypothetical statement by President Obama in the wake of the election. 

I have just met with the new Republican and Democratic leaders and asked them to work together with me to solve the country's problems. Voters across the country have sent a clear message and I've heard it. The economy isn't creating enough jobs but we can't go back to rising debt and dangerous bubbles. My commitment is to build a new foundation for jobs and growth that begins with making things in America again. Yes, we have to reduce our deficits, but it is not enough. We have to make investments in education, in research and innovation, in a competitive 21st century infrastructure. We have to lead in the new energy, Green industrial revolution sweeping the world. This has to be affordable, but m priority is working together to rebuild a successful America with a rising middle class.

This is in many ways an exemplary speech of activist progressive government.    Reducing deficits is not enough, we need a new foundation.  Investments in education, research and innovation, twenty-first century infrastructure.  Lead in new energy.  A priority to rebuild a successful America with a rising middle class.  One would have thought that a public irate about big government and wasted spending, and repudiating Obama’s tax and spend liberalism would reject this out of hand. 

Instead two-thirds of voters ranked it positively, one-third very positive.  Only 31% were negative, and only 16% very negative. 

We followed that by proposing two muscular initiatives.  One - calling for rebuilding our infrastructure and creating a new public institution - a National Infrastucture Bank - gained support 53- 36%.  The other - a five year strategy to revive manufacturing, including by America, challenging unfair trade practices, investing in research and technology - was favored by a staggering 80% of voters with only 10% opposed. 

We don’t think voters make policy choices in polls.  But clearly they are receptive to bold vision, to big plans even in a time of big deficits.  They don’t want their money wasted, to be sure, but they understand America is in trouble, and are looking for the vision and agenda that will put it back on track.

The progressive challenge

Some conclusions come from this.  The president’s stance, I would argue, needs three legs.  First, he has the highest stake in getting the economy going, for both moral and political reasons.  Continuing high levels of unemployment and underemployment is a moral disgrace and a political albatross.  So he has little choice but to continue to seek ways to move jobs measures, forcing compromise with the Republicans.  This will inevitably include more tax cuts than liberals will like, hopefully some agreement on major rebuilding of the infrastructure, since the Chamber of Commerce supports that, perhaps some boost on energy, although that seems unlikely.  E.J. Dionne suggests that the president champion the old Nixon idea of revenue sharing, which might gain support from Republican governors.  Much of this seems futile, but the president has little choice but to do what is possible to get the economy going.

Second, the president has to draw very bright lines of what he is prepared to fight for.  Imitate Bill Clinton who became the defender of M2E2 - Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment - against the Gingrich assault.  Stand firm on defending health care, Social Security and Medicare.  Protect education, and poor children from deep cuts in funding.  Draw lines that expose just how extreme the Republican agenda really is.

Finally, he’d be well advised to put forth a bold agenda to revive America - a big commitment to rebuilding America’s infrastructure, a serious strategy to expand manufacturing and ‘making it in America’.  Break it into pieces, fight with the Republican congress to pass it, let Americans see the conflict over direction and priorities.

For progressives, the imperative is independent action and organizing.  The Progressive Caucus only lost three of its members - while the conservative Blue Dogs lost half of theirs.  If they speak collectively, progressive legislators can help lay out a big agenda and challenge the limits of the debate.  And on the outside, progressives need to challenge the tea parties for the populist voice organizing aggressively to protect Social Security and health care, for action on jobs, on immigration reform, on pulling out of Afghanistan and more. 

Progressives also have to lead the way in exposing what Republicans are really about.  They were elected by voters angry at special interests, but relied on the funding of those same interests.  The public is looking for answers, not ideology, for jobs, not gestures.  Voters are skeptical of government and government spending, but want one that works, not one that is crippled.  They are looking for a government on their side - not one controlled by corporate insiders and Wall Street barons.  With the help of the tea parties - both real and Astroturf - Republicans have managed to present themselves as the tribunes of the people, while funding their campaigns with the tributes of the powerful.  It is time for progressive activists and citizens to make certain Americans understand who they really serve.  

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