Skip to main content

Landslide, tsunami, or pendulum?

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | November 7, 2010

Tuesday’s election produced a torrent of catastrophe rhetoric: Republicans retaking control of the House of Representatives by a solid margin was repeatedly characterized as a tsunami, an earthquake, or a landslide.

What these metaphors have in common– other than representing what happened as disastrous, a point perhaps lost on the commentators, including those celebrating the impending arrival of a Republican House of Representatives– is that they portray the shift in voter orientation as a natural force.

And it is probably worth noting that they are right: this is a natural, indeed, repeated, pattern in mid-term elections. But the proper metaphor is not nature out of control. It is the predictable turn of the pendulum– albeit a pendulum whose swing could have been smaller or larger. By shifting our imagery to the inevitable return of a pendulum from one end of its circuit to the other, we can concentrate on what should be occupying our attention: what fueled the high input of energy that pushed the pendulum so far back?

With all due respect to the New York Times and other news outlets seeking answers in the composition of voting groups, the answer to my question will not come from bland breakdowns of who voted for which party. Younger voters (under age 30) went Democratic; older voters went Republican. African-Americans, Latino voters, and voters of Asian extraction went Democratic, but were outnumbered in this election by white voters, especially Southern whites, who gave solid majorities to Republicans (by a margin of 46% in the case of Southern whites). Much will be made of the slight majority of women who voted Republican (by a 2% margin) and some media already have tried to interpret an upward blip in gay voters selecting Republicans (up to 31%, although still breaking strongly for Democratic candidates, 69% to 31%).

But none of that tells us anything useful about why people voted as they did, unless you assume that group identity dictates how people vote. This was what led pundits (and perhaps even John McCain) to assume that the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate in 2008 would lead women to shift to the Republican ticket, even though the immediate reaction by actual women was quite strongly divided.

People vote based on the issues that affect them. Those issues are usually local, and the races where local issues matter most are those that lead to the election of members of the House of Representatives. So we see a strong swing in the House– while in many states, Senate races, which reflect the mass sentiment of a larger group of voters, resulted in the defeat of insurgent Republican candidates backed by highly conservative activists, even when it meant retaining a target blamed for the bad economy, like Harry Reid in Nevada.

So what were the issues motivating voters in local races? The economy. The economy. The economy. The Washington Post reports that

More than eight in 10 are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried,” about the same as in 2008, when 86 percent said so. In a clear shift, today worried voters appear to favor the GOP; two years ago, these voters backed Democratic candidates by a 55 to 43 split.

Let me underline what this is telling us: about the same proportion of voters was motivated by worries about the economy as in the 2008 presidential election year; but this year, voters with these worries went for Republicans instead of Democrats.

Why? think of the pendulum. Voters want the wretched economy to be fixed. While unemployment rates hovering around 10% actually mean that the vast majority of people seeking a job have found one, real wages have declined over recent decades, a large proportion of those employed are employed for lower salaries than they once hoped for or perhaps once earned, and large numbers of potential workers have given up on seeking a job. Meanwhile, the assets that workers expected to provide for their retirement– appreciation in their houses, and mutual funds in which their retirement funds were invested– dropped sharply in value, making those who formerly felt comfortable suddenly uncertain about their individual economic circumstances.

Who do you blame for the decline in your wealth, for your lowered employment prospects? You blame the people in control, who should have done something. Even when they did do something, and even when that something is beginning to show effects– all too slow, and all too likely to stall, and all too likely to leave us with an economy that limits many people’s prospects more than they ever expected.

Again, citing the Washington Post:

In the past two years, voters say their family’s financial situation moving backwards: four in 10 say their personal financial situation is worse today than two years ago, far fewer say it is better, and about four in 10 say it is about the same. In 2008, 24 percent said their family’s financial situation was better than it was four years prior, 42 said it was worse, and 34 percent said it was about the same.

So people’s personal perception of their own economic situation is that the Congress of the last two years did not improve things. That is the energy behind the pendulum effect, which is normal in midterm elections after a new President takes over, but was particularly strong this year.

Meanwhile, as an article in the New York Times notes, the pendulum cannot be interpreted as a one-way, permanent move by the electorate to the Republican Party, still less to the Tea Party faction of the Republicans. Majorities of voters reported unfavorable views of both the Democratic (53%) and the Republican (52%) parties.

Voters did not, as Republican politicians may want you to believe, reject the mild efforts made in the first two years of the Obama presidency to reform health care. The Times reports that

The exit polls found that 47 percent of voters said Congress should leave the law as it is or expand it, and that 48 percent said Congress should repeal it.

The Washington Post broke the exit poll down in even more illuminating detail, noting that of the half of voters who went to the polls who support the health care bill, a majority (30% of the total of voters) actually want it expanded.

Exit polls also showed that the majority of voters were not in fact, as Republican leadership has claimed since Tuesday, rejecting President Obama: only 37% of voters said opposing the president was a factor in their vote, while 25% said supporting him was a motivation in their, presumably Democratic, voting. A full 37% said the president did not factor into their voting at all.

There are two factors in this election that may be worth watching for the future. The first was the swing of younger voters away from the polls, which the Times notes is normal in midterm elections:

Young voters did make up a decidedly smaller portion of the electorate this year: 11 percent, down from 18 percent in 2008, when many turned out for the presidential election. But their turnout this year was not much different from their turnout in the last midterm elections, in 2006, when 12 percent of the voters were under 30.

While trying to treat all women, or all Latinos, or all gays and lesbians, as a single voting bloc makes little sense, there is something to be said in the US for considering voter motivations as changing regularly over the course of the individual life. Younger people are disproportionately affected by military engagements; they are at the beginning of their work life, have only begun to build assets, and may be less motivated by concerns about paying for health care; and they may be more mobile, and thus less attached to the very small-scale local issues that motivate voters for house elections. Will they come back out in 2012?

The second is simply, as Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign famously emphasized, the economy. Voters in this election decided that the party in power was not fixing the economy fast enough, or in ways that calmed their fears about their own position. In two years, where they stand will undoubtedly reflect how the economy is doing then.

So while we buckle down for a rocky ride of two years of grandstanding about bizarre issues (stripping the constitutional guarantee of citizenship for those born in the country? really??) keep your eye on the new Republican House of Representatives as it attempts both to claim credit for any improvement in the economy, and distance itself from any continued sluggishness in what is already clearly shaping up to be a slow recovery.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking a pendulum doesn’t swing two ways.