The Congressional Elections 2010 and Turkish Interests in the Congress

By Wiltse, David L. | Insight Turkey, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

The Congressional Elections 2010 and Turkish Interests in the Congress


Wiltse, David L., Insight Turkey


The 2010 election was by any measure a stinging loss for the Democratic Party in the United States Congress, and perhaps a blow to President Barack Obama. The electorate swept aside the Democratic majority with Republicans gaining 63 seats in the US House of Representatives bringing the new partisan balance to 242 to 193 in the Republicans' favor, and reduced the Democrats' majority in the United States Senate by seven seats to a Democratic advantage of 53 to 47. The heavy swing of seats in the House and lighter swings in the Senate tend to obfuscate the actual percentage of each parties' vote share due to the single member district plurality system. The Republicans polled at 51.6 percent and the Democrats 44.8 percent in House races, and in the Senate races the Republicans' vote share was 49.3 percent to the Democrats' 45.1. (1) Put simply, the Republicans had a very good night indeed and President Obama's relationship with Congress will get much more complicated and contentious.

Deciphering the Message of the Electorate

The idea of an electoral mandate is seemingly ingrained in the American understanding of democratic governance. Though the presidency is most often the focus of scholarly work concerning electoral mandates (and presidents elect are generally quickest to claim them), there is no doubt that congressional delegates search for and act upon perceived mandates as well; with winners pursuing aggressive agendas and the losers generally moving in that ideological direction. (2) The attractiveness of the electoral mandate theory is clear: it allows policymakers and commentators to make easy sense out of the complexities of public opinion. Rather than trying to parse through the layers of nuance and vagaries in the public will, an elected official can simply default to their own ideological agenda, which they presume was the vehicle by which they were elected. However, the murkiness of public opinion and the marginal importance of policy preferences in the voting calculus, have led scholars to reject the claim of policy mandates with near unanimity. (3) Couple these factors with the weak American party system, the lack of a cohesive party platform, and the fact that candidates are almost entirely responsible for their own elections, (4) claiming any kind of policy mandate is a patently ridiculous proposition.

The aftermath of the 2010 election has proven to fall into this historical pattern. The newly empowered and emboldened Republican leadership of the House has predictably made this dubious claim. Hours after the Republican victory was secured, incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio claimed the American people delivered a clear message to repeal the "monstrosity" of Obama's health care reform. This is despite the fact that election-day polling showed voters were evenly divided on the issue. Even the minority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, claimed a part of this mandate despite his failure to deliver a Republican majority in his chamber. What is most remarkable about this claim of a policy mandate is the fact that many conservatives readily acknowledge that Republicans failed to run on a cohesive policy agenda during the election and merely defaulted to criticisms of President Obama appealing to latent anger and frustration in the electorate. (5)

Perhaps the best clues for divining the meaning of American congressional elections are the models that forecast their results. These models do a rather nice job of describing the underlying dynamics that drive American voting behavior. They typically include several structural factors that influence the vote, and a variety of indicators of the general political mood of the electorate. (6)

Structurally speaking, it is an axiom that the presidential party almost always loses seats during midterm elections. In 2010, it was never a question of if the Democrats would lose seats, but of how many seats they would lose. …

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