By now, everyone has heard of the conservative “tidal wave” that has overtaken Congress and most gubernatorial seats throughout the U.S. Indeed, anyone who has watched mainstream media coverage probably understands the midterm election results as a “rebuke of Obama’s policies,” with the “Tea Party movement” captivating “The American People” and putting the brakes on the Democrats’ irresponsible, big-government agenda.
That’s the prevailing narrative, at least. And, surprisingly, this version of events has been accepted all across the spectrum. Even figures like Michael Moore, speaking with a group of analysts on Democracy Now!, have made arguments for why the Democrats were defeated so badly (Obama and the Democrats were too conciliatory, too timid, etcetera) and offered arguments for what must be done going forward (fewer concessions to Wall Street and the rich, etcetera). But in doing so, those who make such arguments implicitly accept the “Conservative/Tea Party/anti-Progressive landslide” narrative.
I would strongly suggest that, while the election results are certainly a political setback for Democrats, this “Tea Party triumph” interpretation is wildly misleading once we look more closely at the actual election results. The media loves conflicts and narratives and, as Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research aptly predicted back in September, this election season was practically preordained to be the election where everyone finally acknowledges that the Obama administration and Democrats lost “because they tried to go too far, too fast, and too left for the inherently conservative American masses.”
Uncompromised, uncompromising news
Get reliable, independent news and commentary delivered to your inbox every day.
True, if we look at the change in the composition of Congress, we see that Democrats have lost at least sixty seats (with several races still to be decided) thereby forfeiting control of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, Democrats have lost at least six seats, now wielding only a narrow majority instead of their former “filibuster-proof” sixty or more seats. We’ve also seen a large shift in the gubernatorial races: though several races are still undecided, Democrats have lost at least nine governorships, now holding only sixteen out of fifty. So how can we possibly not understand this as a “clear” vote by “The American People” that the progressive agenda must be stopped?
I will offer four crucial points as to why evaluating the election in this manner is grossly inaccurate. It must be understood that referring to a substantial change in institutional power relations between the two parties as a substantial change in the mood of “The American People” is political sleight of hand at its worst. However, my position should not be interpreted as a defense of the Democratic Party, but rather as a condemnation of nonsensical media “analysis.”
1. The Total Popular Vote
If asked whether it matters that Candidate A won an election over Candidate B by a margin of 3 percent versus, say, 60 percent, we would likely answer in the affirmative: although Candidate A is the “clear” victor in either case, there exists a serious qualitative difference between these two scenarios. And if we are trying to responsibly discuss the will of the electorate, it behooves us to look beyond the end result – i.e., Candidate A winning office. We would have to ask, for example, “How much did s/he win by? To what extent can we call Candidate A’s victory a rejection of Candidate B’s policies? To what extent can we generalize about the electorate as a whole?” These questions all require us to, at the very least, look at the popular vote rather than at who won the election.
Readers might be thinking that this reasoning is fairly straightforward, perhaps even tediously elementary. But apparently the mainstream media, Republicans and even Democrats disagree. President Obama referred to the Democratic losses as a “shellacking,”  and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said the elections amounted to an “F” on the Democrats’ political report card, an evaluation swiftly and decisively handed to them by none other than “The American People.” 
But what happens when we actually look at the total popular vote for all US Senate, gubernatorial and House of Representatives races? When we look at the total popular vote (that is, all national and gubernatorial votes for all Democrats and Republicans combined), Democrats are, unsurprisingly, still the losers overall – just as Candidate B was in both of my previous hypothetical scenarios – but the results are at serious odds with the prevailing media narrative.
I’ve calculated the Democratic and Republican averages in all available Senate, Governor and House race results. In the Senate, Democrats took 43.2 percent of the vote; Republicans took 51.5 percent. In the gubernatorial races, Democrats took 43.2 percent; Republicans took 50.5 percent. And finally, in the House -where Democrats suffered headline-grabbing losses – Democrats took 47.3 percent; Republicans took 50.1 percent. Yes, in the House of Representatives, where the media has been screaming about a Tea Party-led “bloodbath,” Democrats lost the popular vote by less than three percent! In looking at these popular vote results, we clearly see that the Tea Party-Republican alliance barely captured a majority of the vote. The supposed “bloodbath,” therefore, only represents a large change in the party composition of Congress, not an easily discernable shift in the qualitative (that is, ideological) composition of the electorate.
But wasn’t this past election really a rebuke of Obama’s policies? We all remember how popular he was when he won by a landslide in the election in 2008, capturing the Electoral College by the enormous margin of 365 to 173. Doesn’t this shift at least reflect a huge defeat for him personally?
Yes and no. A portion of the electorate, whether consciously or not, will have effectively made it harder for President Obama and the Democrats come January, 2011. If the past is any indicator, gridlock will be the name of the game for the next two years and, to the extent that this ultimately damages President Obama’s political capital, yes, it was a rebuke. However, we shouldn’t so readily accept the narrative that Obama came into office with overwhelming support. Though the Electoral College margin was enormous – just as the net gain of Republican House seats this year was enormous – he actually won with 53 percent of the popular vote; a mere 7 percent over John McCain. A decisive victory, yes, but it was hardly a “mandate” by “The American People” to enact a “progressive agenda.” Consider this last point along with the fact that in none of the national and gubernatorial midterm elections did Republicans, as a whole, win by more than 9 percent over their Democratic challengers. If there was a decisive “sea change” amongst the electorate over the past two years, it has not been borne out by the facts. The only thing “clear” about the midterm elections is that the media and its “analysts” are terrible at accurately reporting on them.
2. Voter Turnout
When I refer to the supposed change in the composition of the electorate, I do so because the electorate comprises those who actually voted on Election Day, not “The American People” as a whole. According to the United States Elections Project, the estimated turnout among eligible voters for the elections was 41.5 percent. When factoring in those adult Americans who cannot vote, but who are nevertheless affected by legislation and policymaking and presumably hold political opinions, the turnout rate drops to 38.2 percent. And, to add one more layer of complexity, those figures simply represent voters who went to the polls – whether they voted for one, all, or some of the candidates on the ballot is not explicitly clear. In other words, the actual percentage of people who voted for any given race could conceivably be lower than 38.2 percent. Thus, when hearing politicians and pundits proclaim that “The American People” have clearly spoken, one should be thoroughly perplexed. In the best-case scenario, among all Americans of voting age, only 38.2 percent “spoke” on Election Day  and, as argued above, their message was anything but clear.
If the midterm elections could be roughly conceived of as ultimately representing a vote between those who saw the elections as important enough to merit casting a vote versus those who did not feel it was important/meaningful/useful enough to participate, then it truly was a “shellacking” – by a margin of roughly 20 percentage points – in favor of the latter. Looking at this meager turnout and making generalizations about “The American People” is, therefore, woefully misleading.
3. The Narrative Eclipses Third-Party Impact
In a few key races, the “Tea Party—Rise-of-the-Republicans” narrative rendered an image of third-party candidates as being of no consequence. If we only look for the winner of the vote, it becomes easy to miss the fact that more voters may have voted against a candidate than for him or her. For instance, in the Senate race in Illinois (for the seat formerly held by Barack Obama), none of the coverage I witnessed mentioned that the considerable turnout for Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones, who took 3.2 percent of the vote, could arguably have cost the Democrat Alexi Giannoulias (who lost by less than 2 percent ) the election. This observation is not an attack on the Green Party candidate, but a criticism of the media’s inability to treat the victory of Tea Party favorite Mark Kirk as something more complicated than a shining example of the “clear” pushback against progressive politics nationwide.
Similarly, in Florida’s Senate race, the moderate and Democratic vote was split between Independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek. Together their votes amount to 49.8 percent, whereas Tea Party hero Marco Rubio won with 48.9 percent. In Alaska, a write-in candidate headed toward victory over Tea Party darling Joe Miller. Adding to this more nuanced depiction of public opinion around the Tea Party are the losses of now-well-known, far-right candidates (many of whom were explicitly endorsed by the Tea Party) such as O’Donnell in Delaware, Paladino in New York, Angle in Nevada, Whitman and Fiorina in California, and McMahon in Connecticut. And yet, the narrative lives on.
4. Ideological Rejection vs. Managerial Rejection
Lastly, it’s probably useful to question whether this was really an election about ideological preference and not simply a fall in many voters’ confidence about the “handling of the economy” by the Democrats. It comes as no surprise that the number-one issue for nearly 90 percent of likely voters this year was the economy and jobs. Given the weak health of the economy, it is also not surprising that a portion of the electorate might employ a kind of “guess-and-check” strategy where, if one political party does not appear to be improving the economy, some voters will simply “give the other one a try” for a while. These voters, then, desire more of a change in management than a change in ideological direction.
This point deserves more analysis than is possible to provide here, but in short, the perception that higher deficits are somehow causing the poor health of the economy is probably fairly pervasive among the general public. In reality, higher deficits are more the result of a weak economy – both in terms of decreased revenues, increased demand for government benefits (unemployment insurance, Medicaid, Food Stamps, etcetera), and the political necessity of stimulating (or at least maintaining) aggregate demand. One can see how some voters, lacking a clear understanding of this reality, might easily misread the causality and opt for new “managers of the economy.” Had unemployment been half of what it is currently, had more people been able to keep their homes, had more uninsured Americans been able to obtain affordable health insurance before the end of 2010, had more working class people been able to see what a real economic “stimulus” program could do to improve their lives – had all of this happened, my guess is that the election results would have been markedly different. And if that is indeed the case, the midterms cannot seriously be treated as a decisive endorsement by “The American People” of free-market economics and limited government, regardless of the extent to which others may want you to believe it.
5. I calculated these percentages using all available election data from The New York Times. The calculations are based on the available results of 423 House races, 37 gubernatorial races, and 36 Senate races between Democrats and Republicans as of 11/4/10. In a dozen or so House races, percentages were listed for only one of the two parties. In these few cases, I subtracted the percentage from one hundred and gave the other party the difference. While this represents somewhat of an assumption on my part, it is not an unreasonable assumption and will have had only a small effect on the final party averages.
12. I’ve always been perplexed by this popular notion that the government can be badly “managing the economy” in some way, especially when coming from the same people who tout the virtues of our “free market” system. If these people were coherent free-marketeers, they would never claim that the government has any responsibility to “fix the economy” (except, perhaps, vis-a-vis lowering taxes).