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To understand why Democrats lost, look first to the fundamentals

When analyzing elections, political scientists like to point to what they call "the fundamentals." Pundits prefer to look at things like narratives, who is "winning" news cycles, and the minutiae of political battles. This is in part because it is hard to fill newspaper pages, blogs, and hours of cable news talking about the same fundamental issues every single day. But the fact remains that these fundamentals are vastly more important to electoral outcomes than almost anything that dominates each day's news cycle. With respect to Professor David Schultz's Community Voices article last week, "Why the Democrats Lost on Tuesday," Obama's messaging and process, while not completely inconsequential, mattered only on the margins. So why did the Democrats lose?

Economy
In the 1992 election, Bill Clinton's campaign team had a slogan that they repeated again and again: "It's the economy, stupid." President Obama, along with a Democratically controlled Congress, were (and are) presiding over an economy with unemployment at 9.6 percent, anemic GDP growth, and falling wages for all levels of income. Under these conditions, no amount of leadership, maneuvering, or narrative could have forestalled steep losses. Any incumbent party was going to get hit hard in the midterm elections when dealing with an economy in such dire straights.

History
This isn't to say that the economy is the only thing included in the term "fundamentals." Absent a momentous event changing things, the president's party always loses seats in the midterm elections. Presidents Reagan and Clinton both faced large losses in their first midterm elections. (In 2002, George W. Bush's Republican Congress did well, in large part due to the swell in support from the 9/11 attacks, which are clearly an abnormal event.)

Arithmetic
Obviously, it's not a rule that the president's party will lose as badly as the Democrats did on Nov. 2. For one, as I noted above, the economy is in the extremely bad shape. That explains a lot. For another, it's important to keep in mind just how big the Democratic majorities were. Democrats held 255 seats in the House of Representatives to the Republicans' 178. A party that holds more seats has more seats to defend, and more seats to lose. President Reagan's Republican Party only lost 26 seats in the 1982 midterms, butit only started with 192 seats. Democrats will be left with around 190 after all the ballots are counted.

Swing districts
Many of those seats being defended by Democrats were, by definition, in swing districts. Indeed, in trying to figure out which Democrats would lose, the best thing to look at was how their districts voted in the 2008 presidential election. Those Democrats whose districts voted for John McCain did very badly. It seems obvious, but it bears repeating: Democrats in conservative districts are in trouble in a Republican wave year.

Demographics and enthusiasm
Finally, the demographics of midterms, combined with an "enthusiasm gap," hurt Democrats badly. In 2008, President Obama and Democrats running for Congress won in large part thanks to the votes of the young and minorities. Traditionally, midterm electorates are older and whiter than the electorates in presidential election years. This was certainly true of 2010. Young voters made up a higher percentage of the electorate than the elderly in 2008. In 2010, the elderly made up twice as much of the electorate as the young. In addition, Republican voters were far more enthusiastic about voting than Democrats. Turnout is always lower for both parties in midterm elections, but this year Republican voters were more enthusiastic and showed up in greater numbers than Democratic voters. This was particularly true in Midwestern states, which is where Democrats were hit the hardest.

Now, I don't mean to say that Democrats had no control over their own destiny. Clearly, if nothing else, they could have done a better job handling the economy. If the economy were growing and adding jobs at a faster clip, the losses could have been minimized. It is also worth mentioning that candidate choice does matter, and Republicans had a strong field of candidates this year (though there were some high-profile exceptions). I don't want to make a sweeping statement that political messaging, leadership, or narrative have no effect at all on elections, merely that the effect is only on the margins. It's hard to quantify what that means, but I would feel comfortable in saying that the number of seats gained or lost this election due to things other than the fundamentals was in the single digits.

When looking to explain election results, look first to the fundamentals. Even the most gifted communicator and politician can't overcome an economy this bad.

Matthew Lewis has a degree in political science and history from Miami University. He works for a St. Paul nonprofit and blogs at Bullied Pulpit.

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Comments (4)

I'm always amused when anyone says the Democrats SHOULD have concentrated more on the economy.

I'm amused because NO one ever suggests what they could have done to accomplish that end, nor what approach they could have taken that would have made it past the threat of a Republican filibuster in the Senate (except useless tax cuts for the already fabulously wealthy and the Republicans would even have opposed THOSE of the Democrats proposed them).

I think Obama got stuck in his own trap--he favored the financial sector over people. By helping his financiers, he neglected or lost touch with what people in general were experiencing; he neither tackled the central economic problem nor really tried to help struggling people on main street. To paraphrase Mr. Mondale I believe, 'Obama's no FDR.' I don't have any sympathy for the man.

This is most certainly true

When Bush negotiated the bank bailout, there was indignation from people of every political stripe commenting on the Strib website. At that point, the only issue that had ever prompted such universal disapproval had been elder abuse (both left and right thought that the perpetrators deserved severe punishment). The left wingers were angry that banks instead of homeowners were being helped. The right wingers were angry enough that they declared themselves to be Libertarians.

Economists say that the bailout was necessary to avoid spooking the world's economy. Whether that is true or not, Obama could have made points with both the right and left by placing severe restrictions on the banks as conditions for receiving the bailout: firing the executives responsible and sending them to bed without their bonuses, a ban on the stupid banker tricks that had caused the problems, and in Congress, a financial transactions tax to discourage speculation. Instead, the banks were given unconditional bailouts, and the criminals were allowed to keep their bonuses "because contracts are sacred."

However, when it came time to bail out the auto companies, their employees' contracts were not considered sacred, and they had to accept cuts in wages and benefits.

Did Obama and his Wall Street-heavy Cabinet ever stop to consider that there are still a lot more factory workers than multinational bank executives in this country?

Greg: I agree 100%. This article is intended to be about the election, not about what Democrats could have done. As a result, I didn't want to get into that. But you're right, there's not much more Democrats could have done.

I would argue that appointing a liberal as Fed Chairman instead of Ben Bernanke and filling the empty spots on the Federal Reserve board with liberals who were open to expansionary monetary policy could have had an effect. For one, the Fed may have tried a second round of quantitative easing BEFORE the election, rather than right after it. That's fairly speculative, however, and we don't know how much monetary policy will help.

On stimulus, you're probably right, they got all they could get. My line that Dems had some control was meant to say that the fundamentals can be affected, not that it was necessarily politically feasible.