Political Fundamentals Are Not Destiny

Martin LongmanMartin Longman wrote a really thought provoking article over at Washington Monthly that pushes back against the fundamentals obsession of people like me, The Midterm Results Were Not Completely Preordained. I said “thought provoking,” however — not “right.” But the title of his article is right on: fundamentals are not destiny. And even I know that, as much as I may harp on them. Fundamentals tend to swamp everything else, but political scientists only claim that the economic trend in presidential years is responsible for 40% of the election results. That leaves a lot of other things to tip the balance. And that’s even more true in statewide and (especially) local races.

Longman’s first point is striking. He presented a graph of House results in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan in 2012 and 2014. Even though the Republicans got a much higher percentage of the vote in 2014, they ended up with exactly the same number of house seats in each of the three states. When I saw that I was speechless. But it didn’t take long to come to the same conclusion that he did:

One could look at this as a disappointment for the GOP. They did so much better in 2014 and got no reward for it. The better way to look at it is that what the American people think doesn’t have any influence whatsoever on who winds up controlling the House. The results were the same whether the president was being reelected (as he was in all three of these states) or being disparaged as a drag on the ticket. It didn’t make a difference whether the incumbent governor was being drummed out of office (as in Pennsylvania) or reelected in a landslide (as in Ohio).

And Longman isn’t exactly cherry picking. Currently, there are only 15 House seats nationwide that flipped, and another seven that are too close to call. It does show the pernicious effects of gerrymandering. And for the record, I’m very tired of hearing people claim that pushing all urban areas into as few districts as possible is not gerrymandering. The truth is that we could have laws that would divide states up in the most equitable way possible and we don’t. There is nothing natural about our current state.

The second point is more diffuse, but Longman noted the polls were particularly off on the statewide elections in Appalachia. And yes, the Democrats could be a lot more populist in terms of economics. But the fact was that the media was not interested in reporting these issues anyway. Instead, it was ISIS and Ebola — two issues that implicitly and explicitly made Democrats look weak. (Although note: is there anything to fear from either now? No!)

Something that I think Democrats need to consider very carefully is the party’s brand. By talking more about economics — an issue where even many conservative voters agree with “liberal” policy — the Democrats would not likely have won any more states. But they likely would have done better. And they would have started the generations-long process of winning the ideological debate about these issues. The problem, as I’ve discussed many times before, is that I don’t think the power elite in the Democratic Party want to win this debate. They are happy to talk about abortion and same sex marriage; but economic issues are as much a threat to them as they are to the Republican elites.

Regardless, political parties can’t just focus on the fundamentals — waiting around for the right conditions for them to get into power. For one thing, they would be in no position to exploit the opportunity once they got in power. I think that is largely what happened with the Democratic Party in 2008. Obamacare was fine, but why didn’t the party even start thinking about minimum wage until 2012? But issues like this are not just good policy, they are good politics. And they help — especially in close races. And this year, the Democrats lost almost all of the close races.

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