Swing Voters, Who Hold Balance of Power in America, Prefer Divided Government

Conservative Republicans are celebrating their victories in the 2010 elections,fantasizing about a complete conservative Republican takeover of government in 2012, crowing that Barack Obama is “another Jimmy Carter.” Winning back the White House will be a piece of cake, they say, and they’ll be on such a roll as to take eight to 10 more Senate seats, maybe even with the luxury of purging RINOs — Republicans in Name Only — those who aren’t “real conservatives” by defeating them in primaries. Moderate GOP Senator Olympia Snow already faces a primary challenge in 2012.

It’s easy for ideological zealots to lose perspective and proportionality. Both parties tend to misinterpret election victories as great mandates and to over-reach, when in actuality it mostly means moderate, independent swing voters think the party controlling the White House and Congress has gone far enough, or maybe too far.

These people — the swing voters — like divided government. But let’s be clear: about 80 percent of the American electorate does NOT favor divided government, as Hendrik Hertzberg pointed out in The New Yorker. Most voters are party loyalists. Only between 15 percent and 20 percent of voters split their tickets by voting for presidential candidates and congressional candidates from different parties.

These are the voters who hold the balance of power. One might say they are easily manipulated by events, or react mostly negatively to events. In 2008, they didn’t like the economic downturn, or quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, so they voted against Bush, McCain and the Republicans and for Obama and the Democrats. In 2010, they were worried about the burgeoning deficits and feared the individual mandate in the health care reform bill would cost them or their loved ones more money.

Divided government has been the norm since the 1950s. The only exceptions have been the eight years of Kennedy-Johnson in the 1960s, the four years of Jimmy Carter 1977-81, and a few years during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In their skepticism about unchecked political power of either political party, moderate swing voters think divided government means both political parties will be held accountable and forced to build consensus. Republicans Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the Bushes mostly had to grapple with Democratic Congresses, while Bill Clinton, after his first two years, had to deal with mostly Republican Congresses.

In this context, Democratic losses in 2010 weren’t all that out of the ordinary for the party in control of the White House in their first mid-term election. With two exceptions, Democratic senators with tough re-election campaigns won in 2010. Michael Bennet in Colorado, Harry Reid in Nevada, Barbara Boxer in California, and Patty Murray in Washington all won re-election despite vigorous opposition.

In January, 2010, I predicted the Democrats would lose five senate seats, in keeping with historical patterns. They lost seven seats, if the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts is included (Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Arkansas).

Independent-minded swing voters and ticket-splitters respond more to specific candidates than to party affiliation. One could argue that the GOP Senate victories in most states, especially Massachusetts, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and North Dakota, were due to the special strength and quality of the Republican candidates and weakness of Democratic candidates. The outcome would have been the same without a national  GOP headwind.

Only Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Democratic senators Arlen Specter and Russ Feingold were rejected, are possibly (and only partly) attributable to a national Republican wave and rejection of Obama policies. Obama was never popular in Arkansas, where the Democratic Senate incumbent lost. His support probably helped Democratic candidates in Connecticut and Delaware.

In the House, it would have been in keeping with historical patterns for the Democrats to lose 30 seats. Instead, they lost 50. Since voters are far less likely to know House candidates well, House races are much more reflective of state or national trends, though strong candidates can buck national trends, especially if they have weak opponents. At least six House candidates were elected who “are not ready for prime time,” according to National Journal, and who just might lose in a different political environment in 2012.

In politics, as in Newton’s laws of motion, every significant action tends to create an equal and opposite reaction. The 111th Congress had 255 Democrats and 178 Republicans, and an extraordinary record of legislative accomplishment. So it isn’t surprising that voters reacted against some of the more controversial legislation, like health care reform. The 112th Congress will have 240 Republicans and 190 Democrats, less than the Democratic majority in the 111th Congress. They’ll try to repeal health care reform, but they simply don’t have the votes to over-ride an Obama veto.

The closest parallel to the 2010 midterm elections is 1982, after Ronald Reagan’s first two years. Consider that the Republican ratio of House control, 240-190, is less than when Democrats won back control of the House in the 1982 mid-term elections, 269-166. Though the Democrats promised to roll back the “Reagan revolution,” the 1983-85 Congress accomplished virtually nothing. The 98th Congress (1983-85) was filled with gridlock, one of the worst records in decades, producing only two significant new laws.

What is victory worth if nothing tangible is accomplished? Time will tell.

In their intoxication, some Republicans are talking about purging moderates like Senator Olympia Snow of Maine by running a Tea Party candidate to defeat her in a primary. If successful, such a move should make moderate if not progressive Maine a potential Democratic pick-up in 2012. It is, after all thanks to Tea Party activists in certain states that Democrats still control the US Senate. If weak Tea Party candidates hadn’t been nominated in Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado after divisive primaries, the Republicans would probably control the US Senate in the 112th Congress.

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