Academic journal article Policy Review

The Road to (and from) the 2010 Elections

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Road to (and from) the 2010 Elections

Article excerpt

THE 2008 ELECTIONS gave the Democrats the House, the presidency, and a "filibuster proof" Senate. Pundits spoke of the election as a "game changer." Evan Thomas wrote that "Like Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and Reagan in 1980, the Obama run of 2008 marks a real shift in real time. It is early yet, but it is not difficult to imagine that we will, for years to come, think of American politics in terms of Before Obama and After Obama." (1) According to Borsage and Greenberg: "But election 2008 was not simply a testament to the remarkable candidacy of Barack Obama, nor a product of Bush's catastrophic presidency. Rather, the results suggest that this may not be simply a change election but a sea-change election ... we may be witness to the emergence of a new progressive majority, that contrary to conservatives' claims, America is now a center-left nation." (2) Even James Carville's 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation did not seem as outlandish when published in early 2009 as it does in the aftermath of the 2010 congressional elections.

This article examines what happened to the president and his party between the electoral zenith of November 2008 and the nadir of November 2010. We begin by reviewing an analysis that appeared in these pages early in 2009. Contrary to much commentary at the time, that analysis showed that the Obama victory was less a reflection of an electorate that had moved to the left than it was a negative judgment on the performance of the Bush administration. We extend that analysis, showing that in 2009 and 2010 the public came to view the performance of the new administration increasingly negatively, in part because of policies it pursued that did not enjoy wide popular support. In particular, we show that the administration's focus on health care and, to a lesser extent, cap and trade probably cost the Democrats their House majority. We conclude with brief speculations about the prospects that the new Republican House can make progress on its avowed goal of reducing government expenditures.

The road to 2008

AS WE POINTED out in our earlier article, between 2004 and 2006, numerous public opinion polls reported a significant increase in Democratic Party identifiers and a corresponding decrease in Republican identifiers. (3) Since these polls were cross-sectional snapshots, however, the causes of the change were unclear. Thus, we commissioned YouGov/Polimetrix, an internet-based poll, to sample nearly 13,000 respondents who had been in their large database since 2004. This allowed us to track change in parry identification over the four-year period and relate them to questions about the policies and performance of the Bush administration.

Figure 1 shows that 2004 Republicans who stuck with their identification in 2008 were much more likely to approve of the Bush administration's overall performance as well as its handling of the war in Iraq and the economy than were stable independents and 2004 Republicans who had moved to Independent in 2008. The latter in turn were more favorable to the administration than stable Democrats and 2004 Republicans and Independents who had moved to the Democratic side in 2008.


But while disapproval of the Bush administration was strongly associated with movement away from the Republican Party, disapproval did not indicate that voter sentiment was shifting to the left across a range of policy issues. We used the same survey to examine public positions on a set of issues where party differences were clearly evident: universal healthcare, global warming, gay marriage, abortion rights, and illegal immigration. The Republican response was coded as: oppose universal health care, think effects of global warming are overstated, oppose any legal recognition of same sex couples, allow no abortions or only in case of rape and incest, and favor deportation of illegal immigrants. Figure 2 plots the percent taking the Republican response for each of the three categories of respondents: stable Republicans, stable and new independents, stable and new Democrats. …

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