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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Implications of the 2010 House Vote

Here’s an Election 2010 update, with a particular look at what the results mean going forward.

Gallup’s polling and modeling predicted a wave election for the Republicans in the House, projecting 60 or more seats gained by the GOP. This is what occurred. A wave election is one in which national issues and trends become strong enough that they affect local House races. The most recent wave election for the Republicans involved a gain of 54 House seats in 1994. After that election the Republicans held 230 seats. The previous wave election for Republicans prior to that was 1946, when the GOP gained 56 seats, for a total of 246 seats. This year, the Republicans look like they will have gained at least 65 seats (plus or minus a few as final results come in), making it the largest GOP wave election since the time of World War II. The results give the Republicans an estimated 243 seats, the highest GOP total in the House since 1946.

Several key points about this election and in particular what it portends about the future:

1. There were a number of structural factors that had an impact on this election. The first is that in any midterm election the party of the president can be expected to lose House seats, barring unusual circumstances such as occurred in 2002 (a little more than a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and in which the GOP gained rather than losing seats). The second is the fact that Democrats this year held a number of shakier seats, in part resulting from strong Democratic years in 2006 and 2008. Everything else being equal, when one party wins a lot of seats, there is a tendency for them to lose some of them back in the next election. (We can thus predict that Republicans will be more vulnerable to losing seats in 2012). Third is the fact that Congress as a body has low job approval ratings, which predicts that the party controlling Congress will lose seats. Fourth is the fact that Americans are by and large dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today, which too predicts that the party in charge will lose seats. Fifth is the negative perception of the economy by voters.

2. The economy was clearly the top issue this year in the campaign, based on all available evidence. The economy remains the top issue when we ask Americans to name the most important problem facing the country. “Economic concerns” was the top issue voters told us they took into account in making their choice, and that held across all partisan groups. Our Gallup economic confidence data show a continuing low level of faith either in the current economy or the future of the economy. When Americans perceive there is a bad economy, the party in charge -- that is, the party in control of the White House and/or Congress -- generally tends to get the blame.

3. A very important issue in this election encompassed differences of opinion over the appropriate role of the federal government in American society. This is a real key to understanding what is going on in American politics today. Much Gallup research, a lot of it included in our October federal government summit in Washington, shows that Republicans and Democrats have widely differing views on what it is government should be doing, and how government should be doing it. Republicans tend to argue for less government, while Democrats tend to be positive about the use of government to focus on solving society’s problems. These sentiments were at the heart of the Tea Party movement and were strong motivating factors in Republicans’ disproportionately high voting turnout.

4. Republicans had a higher level of enthusiasm about voting this year than did Democrats. This was caused in large part by the items I’ve listed above.

5. President Obama inserted himself into this election with heavy campaigning on behalf of Democratic candidates. It is unclear just how much of a factor this was. Our latest data showed that voters were no more likely to say they were voting to send a message of opposition to Obama than they were in terms of sending a message of opposition to George W. Bush in 2006. Obama’s job approval rating is below the 50% mark -- which predicts that a president’s party is not going to do well in the elections, but has remained fairly consistent in and around the 45% mark.  By point of reference, George Bush’s job approval rating was 38% just before the 2006 midterm elections in which the Republicans lost seats, Bill Clinton’s was 46% in 1994 just before the Democrats lost seats, and Harry Truman’s was 33% in 1946 just before the Democrats lost seats.

6. The big challenge going forward is how the new Congress will govern and what it will do. There will be a Democratic White House, a Democratic Senate, and a Republican House. There are obvious strong differences of opinion between Republicans and Democrats, primarily focused on what the role of government should be. That issue, again, is going to be a key centerpiece of governing going forward. The executive and legislative branches will need to come to grips with balancing the two polar opposite views of government in society today if anything is going to get done. Additionally, Congress will need to work on its overall negative image, which is in historically bad shape.

7. The results of this election tell us little about the probable outcome of the next presidential election, forthcoming in 2012. History shows that the two years between elections constitute an eternity. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan’s parties lost seats in 1994 and 1982, yet both easily won re-election two years later. At the same time, George H.W. Bush’s party lost seats in 1990 and he went on to lose in 1992. The status of the economy over the next two years will be a significant factor in determining Obama’s re-election probabilities.

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