Monday, January 18, 2010

Time To Calm Down?

Historian Nancy L. Cohen has an interesting op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. Her thesis is that the November, 2010 elections won't be anything like the 1994 elections which resulted in congressional control shifting to the Republicans because certain assumptions about the 1994 elections are just not based in fact.

...everyone should take a deep breath: The 2010 midterms will not be a repeat of 1994. Why? Because almost everything we think we know about the 1994 election is wrong.

Let's look at the 1994 election. How was the GOP able to pick up 52 House seats and eight Senate seats to take control of Congress for the first time in over four decades? This was the second year of Bill Clinton's presidency, and his signature initiative -- healthcare reform -- had just failed. Although economists insisted the recession was over, unemployment remained high and wages were stagnant.

According to received wisdom, the Contract with America -- the agenda the GOP ran on -- capitalized on widespread discontent with Clinton and the Democratic Party and articulated a conservative vision that resonated with Americans. Newt Gingrich, soon to be speaker of the House and the putative architect of the rout, boasted, "We have a clear mandate, and we intend to be revolutionaries." Never mind that only 39% of voters showed up for the supposed referendum on the state of the nation. ...

But the contract explanation persists, along with a corollary: that 1994 was the year of the "angry white man." Democrats lost, according to this analysis, because they alienated economically anxious and culturally disaffected voters. The contract had targeted supporters of Ross Perot, the third-party candidate who shook up the presidential race in 1992: overwhelmingly male, independent, distrustful of government and angry about their declining economic and social status. As these populist white men went, so went Congress in 1994 -- to the GOP.
[Emphasis added]

Since not that many voters had any idea of what the "Contract For America" really was, or had even heard about it, and since the voting data shows that white males (angry or not) pretty much voted as they did for reasons other than feeling disaffected by liberal programs, what did cause the dramatic shift?

If the GOP landslide wasn't due to Gingrich's Contract with America, nor to the votes of disaffected, populist white men, what did happen in 1994? A different set of trends altogether: the unexpected rise of the Christian right and the move of white Southerners into the GOP. ...

... In 1988, 61% of white evangelicals had voted; in 1994, 74% did. Christian conservatives made up 33% of all voters in 1994, compared with 18% in 1988.

It was also the year the South went solidly Republican. For the first time since Reconstruction, the majority of senators and representatives elected from the region were members of the GOP. Although anti-Clinton sentiment did burn hottest in the South, the collapse of the Southern Democratic Party had long been in the making. White Southerners began voting Republican in presidential elections in the 1960s, but they still voted Democratic in local and congressional elections.

It's pretty hard to refute Ms. Cohen's analysis of the 1994 election, given the statistics she cites. Nevertheless, I think the Democrats should still be worried. Maybe the Christian and Southern right won't be quite as big a surprise this time around. As she notes, "they are the Republican Party," at least right now. What I think the Democratic Party should be worried about is not "swing voters," but rather Democratic voters.

One statistic which Ms. Cohen cites (emphasized above) is that voter turnout in the 1994 election was 39%. Democrats just didn't turn out. There is an even greater danger of that happening in 2010. Liberal Democrats are disappointed, gravely so, over much of what has happened in the last year. Health Care Reform looks like the biggest give-away ever to the insurance and medical provider industry. The banking industry, which was a major cause of our economic disaster, continues to reap the benefits of its flagrantly fraudulent behavior, getting through the hard times via the gracious taxpayer bailouts. Rather than ending the wars, the administration is ramping one of them up and pretty much ignoring the other. And while the Guantanamo Bay prison camp may eventually be closed down, the White House still intends to hold prisoners indefinitely and without charge.

In 2008, those liberals not only poured money into various campaigns, including President Obama's, they stumped for the party, pouring hours into working the phone lines and walking the precincts to get out the vote. There doesn't seem to be that that kind of interest right now, and if there isn't a sea change in the next ten months, it won't be there in November. Turnout may be even less than the deplorable 39% of 1994.

The Democrats will lose more than a few seats and will lose that oh-so-precious 60 vote mark in the Senate. It won't take tea baggers or angry white men. The Democrats will do it to themselves.



Anonymous Jamie said...

Oddly enough 39% is pretty high turnout for an off year election.

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Jamie said...

Another problem is in my district the GOP doesn't even run a candidate

8:59 PM  

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