By Jim Shoch
There’s no way around it; the Democrats suffered another “shellacking” (President Obama’s description of the 2010 election results) in the recent congressional midterm and other elections. The Republicans will likely pick up nine Senate seats and 16-19 House seats and captured numerous governorships and state legislative chambers, with gains in all cases especially large in the conservative South (although a number of minimum wage and marijuana legalization initiatives did pass in various states). What explains these mostly depressing developments?
It’s important to be clear that the election outcome was not the result of any sharp right turn by the electorate. Exit polls showed that the voters actually agreed more with the Democrats than the Republicans on most important issues. And Republican candidates advanced no positive legislative agenda; their only unity was opposition to Obama. Thus, the Republicans can claim no conservative policy mandate.
The congressional results can mostly be explained by certain structural factors or “fundamentals” that left the Democrats with an exceptionally difficult playing field. For various reasons, the president’s party typically fares poorly in midterm elections, and especially poorly in midterms six years into a two-term president’s tenure. The Democrats were also hurt by the usual sharp midterm drop-off in voter turnout, one that was especially pronounced among minorities and young people who have become core elements of the Democratic coalition—they voted heavily for Democratic candidates again this year—but who vote much more irregularly in midterm than in presidential elections. Finally, the Democrats were defending 21 of the 36 contested Senate seats this year, six of them in solidly “red” states predominantly composed of conservative white blue-collar, older, and rural voters. Democratic candidates predictably lost in all six of these states, although the Republican “wave” was limited by solid Democratic victories in all of their “blue wall” states.
Such institutional factors, however, can explain only part of the Democrats’ misery, since Democratic Senate candidates also lost in swing or “purple” states like Iowa, Colorado, and North Carolina and only narrowly avoided defeat in New Hampshire and Virginia. Democrats also lost gubernatorial races, including to arch conservatives, in blue and swing states like Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Wisconsin, and Florida. Some of this must be attributed to Obama’s poor approval ratings, which were dragged down everywhere by persistent wage stagnation (despite steady if unspectacular job growth) and GOP and media-fueled perceptions of White House incompetence (see the Benghazi, “fast and furious,” and IRS “scandals”; the VA, border, ISIS, and ebola “crises”; and the admittedly botched Affordable Care Act (ACA) rollout). Although as noted above, this election saw no sweeping voter right-turn, Obama’s unpopularity was a drag on Democratic candidates at every level, pushing white working class voters toward the Republicans while depressing turnout among the Democratic base.
Writers on the left like Bob Kuttner and DSA’s own Harold Meyerson have argued that the Democrats could have at least mitigated their losses if their candidates had espoused a full-throated economic populism in order to sway hard-pressed white working class voters and to mobilize more of their discouraged base. I wish I could believe it. Unfortunately, most voters are too inattentive to politics to pay attention to, and to vote on the basis of, candidates’ rhetoric and specific policy positions. Instead, they vote mostly on basis of their evaluations of incumbents’—especially incumbent presidents’—performance in office, especially on the economy. In this election cycle, voters found Obama and the Democrats’ performance wanting.
Looking ahead, what do the election results mean for the governance of the country? Although media talking heads and some Republican leaders have engaged in happy talk about how fully divided government increases the need for the GOP to demonstrate that it can govern responsibly, thus also boosting the possibility of compromise with Obama and the Democrats on issues like tax reform, trade agreements, the Keystone pipeline, etc., don’t believe it. It’s true that some Senate Republicans in blue states who must defend their seats in the 2016 elections might be open to such compromises. But overall the Senate GOP caucus has moved to the right with the election of candidates in states like Iowa, Arkansas, and North Carolina who, although posing as moderates in the general election, are in fact Tea Party-oriented right-wingers. Beyond this, several influential right-wing Republican senators with presidential aspirations, including Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, can be expected to organize resistance to any compromise with Democrats as they cater to their party’s conservative base in the run-up to and during the Republican primaries. And the situation will be even worse in the House, where the Tea Party wing has also seen its ranks substantially expanded.
Thus, instead of compromise, we should expect new Republican efforts to repeal the ACA, to weaken Dodd-Frank, and to use the budget reconciliation process and appropriations riders to eliminate pieces of the ACA, weaken environmental regulations, etc. Most immediately, if Obama announces an executive order to allow certain immigrants without papers to remain in this country, the Republicans have already declared their intention to wage a pitched battle over the issue. The Republicans will also bring the process of judicial confirmation to an immediate halt. In most cases, Senate Democrats will be able to block such Republican initiatives with filibusters in the Senate (although not of judicial nominations). The few such measures that might survive such filibusters will almost certainly be vetoed by Obama, something many Republicans will welcome as they seek to portray him as the main source of legislative obstructionism (ironies abound). The possibility of another Republican-provoked government shutdown over the budget or raising the federal debt ceiling, although probably not to be expected, nevertheless cannot be excluded. In short, we should expect not compromise but rather only continued gridlock.
Looking still further ahead, what does all this mean for the 2016 elections? There is no hope whatsoever of the Democrats retaking the House of Representatives. The concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas via residential choice together with successful Republican-controlled redistricting efforts following the 2010 census (actually a secondary factor) has meant that Democratic votes are “wasted” in providing their candidates huge majorities in a limited number of districts, while Republican votes are more “efficiently” distributed across a wider geographic area, guaranteeing the GOP victories in many more races. This situation won’t change until at least after, and probably well beyond, the next round of redistricting is completed following the 2020 census.
Circumstances in the Senate, however, are much more fluid. With a bigger turnout of Democratic constituencies a certainty in a presidential election year, and with Republicans defending 24 of the 34 contested seats in 2016, including in seven blue states won twice by Obama, Democratic gains are highly likely. This led some observers to conclude before the election that if the Republicans won control of the Senate, it would almost certainly swing back to the Democrats in 2016. But with the GOP now in control of 54 rather than the expected 51 or 52 seats, and with blue state Republican incumbents not of the most extreme variety, whether the Democrats can in fact reclaim the Senate remains to be seen.
Which leads me to the 2016 presidential race. Despite their difficulties at the congressional level, long-term demographic trends would appear to favor the Democrats in presidential races. The — at this point — mostly pro-Republican white working class electorate is steadily eroding due to both industrial decline and aging, while the ranks of the more liberal “emerging Democratic majority” or “coalition of the ascendant”—including professionals, women, and especially minorities and young people—continue to grow. This does not, however, guarantee Democratic presidential victories, since a wide range of contingent factors affects any given election outcome.
In 2016, with populist and liberal favorite Elizabeth Warren not likely to run, and socialist Bernie Sanders a probable non-factor should he decide to run, the almost certain Democratic nominee will be Hillary Clinton. Two scenarios for her campaign can be envisioned. If the current economic recovery continues to fail to lift wages, if congressional republicans can rein in their obstructionist factions and impulses and resist the temptation to overreach, if they can in particular avoid alienating the emerging Latino electorate by refraining from xenophobic posturing on immigration, if the GOP can produce a nominee who can both energize the conservative Republican base while also appealing to the more moderate general electorate, and if Hillary Clinton proves unable win a sufficient share of the white working class vote while also mobilizing the minorities and young people who helped propel Obama into office, she will lose the election. Should the Republicans also hold onto both the House and the Senate, the results for the country would be extremely ugly, since the GOP would likely follow the elimination of the filibuster for judicial nominees by doing away with it for legislation, as well.
But if wage growth picks up in the next two years; if congressional Republicans do overreach once again, allowing Clinton to pose as the necessary check on them; if the Republicans do drive away Latinos with a hostile stance on immigration; if the GOP nominates an extremist from its Tea Party wing; and if Clinton can both energize the Democratic base, especially women, and appeal to sections of the white working class, again especially working women, alienated by Barack Obama, she has an excellent chance of victory.
Of course, a victorious Clinton would still face a Republican-controlled House and if not a GOP-controlled Senate, then at least a Republican minority armed with the filibuster. In other words, more gridlock is to be expected. The most a Clinton presidency would be able to accomplish is to hold the Republicans at bay.
Even though demographic trends give the Democrats hope of holding the White House in the years ahead, until the party and its candidates can find a way to build support from both the “coalition of the ascendant” and remaining sectors of the white working class sufficient to overcome structural obstacles to their control of the House and Senate, the prospects for meaningful economic and social advance in this country will remain grim.
Jim Shoch taught political science, at Dartmouth College and California State University–Sacramento, until his retirement in 2012. He is the author of Trading Blows: Party Competition and U.S. Trade Policy in a Globalizing Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), and co-editor of What’s Left of the left: Democrats and Social Democrats in Challenging Times (Duke University Press, 2011). He is also a former DSA political director and western regional coordinator.
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