By Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin | November 04, 2010
Washington, D.C.–Experts and pundits will float many interpretations of the 2010 midterms over the next few weeks, each of which progressives should consider carefully. But the most parsimonious explanation of how 2010 unfolded in terms of lessons for progressives going forward lies in a few fundamental factors: the poor state of the economy; the abnormally conservative composition of the midterm electorate; and the large number of vulnerable seats in conservative-leaning areas. These trends cost the Democrats their House majority but were not strong enough to sweep them out in the Senate.
Independent voters, white working-class voters, seniors, and men broke heavily against the Democrats due to the economy. Turnout levels were also unusually low among young and minority voters and unusually high among seniors, whites, and conservatives, thus contributing to a massively skewed midterm electorate. The Democrats therefore faced a predictable, and arguably unavoidable, convergence of forces. Incumbent Democrats suffered a genuine backlash of voter discontent due to a weak economy with considerable concerns about job creation, deep skepticism among independents, poor turnout among key base groups, and strong enthusiasm among energized conservatives.
The estimated 65-seat loss in the House and reduction of the Senate majority is a serious rebuke to the Democrats and the political status quo but this was not an endorsement of a conservative agenda. Data on voter opinions expressed in pre- and post-election polling confirms that the 2010 election was neither a mandate for antigovernment and Tea Party ideology, nor an endorsement of GOP policies on taxes and regulations. And the election did not turn on a repudiation of President Barack Obama’s health care plan despite staunch GOP opposition.
Given these results, progressives’ agenda going forward could not be clearer: They must do whatever is necessary to improve the jobs situation and the overall economy, and they must reengage and reenergize their ranks if they are to succeed in protecting and promoting a progressive policy agenda.
The remainder of this memo outlines the interpretation of what happened in the 2010 election based on the returns and available exit poll data. It explores various theories about why it happened and offers some preliminary thoughts on what progressives should focus on in light of these results in order to advance their issue agenda.
To read the full memo, click here.
John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira are Senior Fellows at the American Progress Action Fund who focus on political theory, communications, and public opinion analysis.