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Election 2010 -- Why Did the Democrats Lose Control of the House?

Written by Walter W. Hill, Professor of Political Science

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) passes the gavel on to newly-elected Speaker John Boehner (R).
© SHAWN THEW/epa/Corbis

The recent election resulted in one of the largest changes in partisan power in the House of Representatives in memory. The Democrats lost control of that chamber. The Republicans remain a minority in the Senate, yet they made gains there too. What happened?

A Predictable Outcome

Unlike some major changes, like the collapse of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe in 1989, this election’s results were clearly forecast. Two days before the election on October 31 – coincidentally Halloween, the Sunday New York Times made a scary prediction for the Democrats: They would lose many seats. The front page had a map of the U.S. color-coded with the Senate races. States were listed in five categories, solid or leaning Democratic, solid or leaning Republican, or too close to call. All 34 races were correctly called. The elections listed as Democratic were won by Democrats, those listed as Republican were won by Republicans.

There were five races listed as toss ups. On the evening of the election, St. Mary’s College’s political science and sociology departments sponsored a television viewing of the real-time reports of elections. None of the five races listed as toss-ups had a winner declared when we ended the event.

There are academics who attempt to forecast elections with mathematical equations. People who write these models want data that are available weeks or months before an election. These might be thought of as moderate-term predictions. After the 2008 House elections, the Democrats had 257 seats and the Republicans had 178. For the 2010 House elections, the range of predicted seats for the Democrats was 230 using their most optimistic model, to 205 seats for the most pessimistic model. You may recall the House has 435 seats, so a party with 218 seats has a majority. The final result of the elections was 193 Democrats and 242 Republicans. Over and over, the modelers were universally too pessimistic in their predictions for successful Republican seats.

Note that many of the moderate or conservative Democrats, identified as Blue Dogs, lost. Of the 54 Blue Dog Democrats in the House of Representatives, 28 lost. Even the Democrats who fought against Democratic programs lost. A prominent example was Rep. Bart Stupak who had a district in northern Michigan. He argued strongly and successfully in favor of conservative language in the health care bill regarding abortions. However, a Republican won this district in November.

Demographics of Republican Win

Exit poll data show demographic characteristics of voters. What is interesting is that the main groups who supported President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory remained with the Democrats. Democratic supporters in 2008 were liberals, young voters, African Americans, and Hispanics. For example, 90% of liberals supported Obama, and 92% supported Democrats in elections for the House of Representatives in 2010. A small difference. However, other groups, notably, independents, older voters, and Catholics swung heavily towards the Republican candidates. Furthermore, members of these groups were much more likely to vote in 2010 than they were in 2008. For example, in a piece in The New York Times, older voters, identified as those over 60 years of age, represented 34% of all voters and 42% supported the Democrats. Older voters were a substantially smaller fraction of the total vote in the 2008 election, and a majority of older voters supported the Democrats in 2008. Independents represented 27% of the electorate and 41% voted Democrat, down from 59% in the last election.

Some might think the Republicans won control of the House because they were able to spend more than in previous elections. The Center for Responsive Politics says approximately $4 billion was spent on campaigns in 2010. This is much greater than the $2.85 billion spent four years earlier in the previous midterm elections. For comparison, note $4.14 billion was spent in the 2004 presidential campaign. It turns out that both parties spent about half of the known expenditures. A major monetary advantage does not appear to explain the Republican win.

Summary

Obama campaigned in 2008 in a way that made him appear to be idealistic and liberal. He was able to mobilize supporters with this outlook. In office, however, he has governed as a pragmatist. This is a rational and practical way to govern, but one not expected by grassroots supporters.

What appears to have happened is that Obama’s support among his core constituency remained. Voters who are young, or liberal, or African American or Hispanic continued to support Democrats in 2010. Groups opposing the Democrats, older voters, conservatives, and most importantly, independents, supported Republicans and turned out in larger numbers. Of course, the grinding economy contradicted statements early in the administration implying that the worst would soon be over.

The Democratic losses were also reflected at the state level. One consequence is that Republicans will be in a much better position when redistricting occurs. A second curious feature is that black representatives who have typically been with the majority party now find themselves in states with Republicans in control of the legislatures.

Then, there was the honeymoon period between the election and the end of the year. There was some speculation immediately after the election that it would be difficult to pass a climate bill and the New Start weapons control treaty. Obama lobbied hard for the latter and it obtained the two-thirds majority needed to pass the Senate in December. A compromise was reached to continue Bush-era tax cuts and to extend unemployment compensation. We will have to see if a period of bipartisanism or a period of factionalism occurs in the year before the formal campaign for the presidential election begins.