I didn’t blog about the midterm elections during the campaign, as I don’t think my 2004 prognostications were particularly accurate. But now that it is just about over, I can’t resist making a few comments. I have voted for Republicans on numerous occasions, but this year (as in 2004) I was strongly in favor of a change.
The Results. Democrats have taken control of the House, wresting at least 29 seats from the Republicans while losing none of their own. (A few seats are still too close to call.) In the Senate, Democrats won six seats formerly held by Republicans, while losing none of their own. That’s enough to ensure a 51–49 Democratic majority in the Senate next year. Democrats also now control a majority of the state governorships for the first time in 12 years, and won control of several state legislatures.
- The Democrats didn’t win this election; the Republicans lost it. Democrats didn’t win because they offered a specific agenda that voters wanted; Republicans lost because their agenda clearly wasn’t working.
- Pending the results in a few of the undecided races, not a single Democrat incumbent lost in a Senate, House, or Gubernatorial race. That is probably unprecedented, and it is certainly very rare.
- The old saying is that “All politics are local.” Yesterday, that wasn’t the case. The results reflected a dissatisfaction on national issues, particularly the war in Iraq.
- The northeast is now solid blue, and the deep south is almost entirely solid red. But in the midwest and far west, formerly red/blue states are now varying shades of pink and purple. These states are in play for either party. I don’t see the Democrats becoming competitive in the deep South (other than perhaps Florida) anytime soon.
- Democratic Chairman Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy worked. Democrats were competitive in states like Wyoming where, a year ago, no one would have given them a snowball’s chance.
- Polling, and particularly exit polling, worked. There were no embarrassing glitches or races called the wrong way, as happened in 2000 and 2004. The late pre-election polls and early exit polls were remarkably close to the final results. Apparently, the pollsters have learned their lesson.
- Independence has its virtues. The non-partisan analysts (Charlie Cook, Stuart Rothenberg, Larry Sabato) got their projections just about right. Conservative bloggers — even those who professed to be following a rigorous methodology — underestimated the size of the Democratic wave. (A few Democratic bloggers missed on the high side, but their errors were less pronounced, perhaps because you’d have to be utterly irrational to imagine a much better outcome for the Democrats.)
- Most of the incoming freshman class of Democrats are centrists. A generation ago, many of them would have been Republicans—back in the days when the phrase “moderate Republican” wasn’t an oxymoron. Democratic leaders appear to understand that the Humphrey–McGovern–Mondale era is over, and to retain their majority, they must govern towards the center.
- George W. Bush isn’t going to change his stripes overnight. But he will come under pressure to compromise. Republican colleagues know that they have to turn things around, to avoid another beating in 2008. As governor of Texas, Bush was known for working effectively with a Democrat-controlled legislature. But he wasn’t a lame duck then. Even with a favoring wind, it has always been difficult for a president to control the agenda in the final two years of an administration. Look for Bush to focus on foreign policy and Iraq (with much more visible Democratic oversight), while the domestic agenda is set by a new generation of leaders in both parties.
- Having said that, I don’t expect the Republicans to make any kind of meaningful shift to the center. Despite yesterday’s loss, they’ve won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections, and the Republican party is dominated now by “movement” conservatives, who view their ideology as a jihad. These aren’t the kinds of folk who compromise their principles, merely because it’s electorally convenient to do so. Many of them will argue that they lost, not because they were too conservative, but because they weren’t conservative enough.
- On ballot initiatives, both sides can claim victories. Democrats can be pleased that proposals to limit abortions went down to defeat in three states, stem cell research was approved in Missouri, and three states passed minimum wage increases. But Republicans can be pleased that gay marriage bans passed in seven out of eight states, and Michigan voters passed a ban on affirmative action.
- Democrats do not have a clear standard-bearer in 2008. Their two most prominently-mentioned presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are almost certainly too liberal to be elected.
- I don’t expect the Republicans to abandon their ultra-conservative, “mobilize-the base” strategy in 2008. Although it failed this time, it has worked often enough that I think they’ll give it at least one more try.
Blip or Tsunami? What does this election tell us about the national electorate? Republicans want to believe that this outcome is merely a blip, and in two years they’ll start another winning streak. Democrats want to believe that a tsunami has finally brought the conservative movement to an end.
The truth is probably somewhere in between. Like many politicians before him, George W. Bush over-played his mandate. He was a minority president in 2000, and probably would have been defeated in 2004 had the Democrats not fielded such a feeble candidate. By running a government that catered almost exclusively to the far right, the Republicans practically begged independents to vote for Democrats. Because moderates have been practically banished from the Republican Party, I wonder if those left actually have a clue about how to appeal to independents, or whether they’re just hoping Democrats will implode again?
But the new Democratic coalition is still both weak and unproven. Many of the independents who handed them this victory have voted Republican before, and will do so again, if the Democrats fumble away this opportunity. We are just eighteen years removed from the 1988 presidential election, when the elder Bush captured 40 out of 50 states. A Republican could quite easily do that again, but it is impossible to imagine a Democrat doing so. To win in 2008, Democrats will once again have to thread a needle through the electoral college.
As I noted above, Democrats didn’t really offer a clear alternative this year—they just stood back and allowed the Republicans to self-destruct. As the majority party in Congress, they will no longer be mere observers, and they will be expected to lead.