Ask the Experts: Chris Ellis on midterm elections
Posted: October 14, 2010
(Editor's note: Professor Ellis will be among the participants in "The 2010 Elections in Context: A Panel Discussion," Thursday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. in the ELC Gallery Theater. || Story)
LEWISBURG, Pa. — With U.S. midterm elections just around the corner, we ask Chris Ellis, assistant professor of political science, for his take on how the political scene is shaping up and possible election implications for the Obama administration's next two years.
Q: With the midterm elections just around the corner, are the Democrats in as much trouble as the pundits think?
A: It's shaping up to be a rough year for the Democrats, probably even more so than is typical for the president's party in the midterm election. I think the odds are pretty good that they'll keep the Senate, because the Republicans would have to pull off some really unlikely victories in places like California for them to do that. They have a better shot at the House, since many moderate Democrats, particularly those elected in the past two election cycles, are in danger.
With the national tide against them, the Democrats have taken to localizing races, talking about the work that they're doing specifically for their constituents and attacking the personal characteristics of their opponents while trying for the most part to ignore the national environment. And the Republicans are trying to make this a national referendum on the current state of the country.
People don't necessarily like the Republican message any more than the Democratic one at this point. But the Republicans have a real advantage in this kind of environment in that they're not in charge of anything right now. So, they're capitalizing on the idea that voters are frustrated and are looking for an alternative to what they currently have.
Q: What are the key issues in this election?
A: The first is clearly the economy. That's the single biggest driver of election outcomes in the United States. Right or wrong, voters tend to punish the president's party for bad economic times. So, with the economy in this shape, you'd expect the Democrats to take a thrashing.
The second thing this election shows is the more general phenomenon of the electorate providing negative feedback to the direction that public policy is headed. Most voters are fairly moderate in their views but for a variety of reasons have to choose between increasingly polarized Democratic and Republican platforms. One thing the electorate does to get its views represented in this kind of polarized climate is to react against the dominant direction of policymaking. So when policy moves strongly to the left, the electorate becomes more conservative. When policy moves to the right, the electorate becomes more liberal. The past couple of years have seen, at least in historical context, fairly stark moves to the left.
So, just as you could say the 2008 election of Obama was in part a result of voter backlash against the deep conservatism of the Bush years, I think you're starting to see a little bit of the reverse this year. The particular issues in this election cycle happen to be things like healthcare and the stimulus, but really this is a much more general and pervasive aspect in American politics. The more a party does, the less of it people want.
Q: What about health care?
A: I would view that as a reflection of this broader phenomenon. If you look at specific provisions of the health care bill, many of them are very popular. But health care in general will hurt the Democrats among moderates this year. Partially, that's a function of inflammatory rhetoric from health care opponents. But in part, there's a real sense that government has encroached its power into domains traditionally part of the private sector, which makes many people uncomfortable. Again, it's just a general sense that the public is sensing that policy has moved to the left, and that it's time to put the brakes on for the time-being.
Q: You didn't mention Afghanistan as being a major voter concern.
A: I don't think it is. Foreign policy tends to be less relevant to most elections than I think is often assumed, and with the economy the way it is, that is especially true. With the economy in the tank, things like Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism and even domestic priorities such as environmental protection become less important, because voters' attention has shifted to this immediate and, for most people, more tangible problem.
Q: If the Democrats lose the House, what are the implications for the remaining two years of the Obama administration?
A: A Republican takeover would be symbolically important, and there certainly will be legislative implications. But it's important not to overstate them. Without veto-proof majorities, which the Republicans won't get, they won't be able to do anything extraordinary like repeal health care. At the margins, they can try to defund certain priorities, but the implications of that are not necessarily straightforward.
A Republican majority in either chamber will certainly kill Obama's chances of passing strongly progressive legislation on things like the environment or further financial regulation, but moderates within his own party have basically ground those gears to a halt anyway. So, there will be implications, but they will not be massive.
Provided the economy doesn't get better, a Republican takeover of the House or Senate or especially both, may actually help Obama's re-election chances in 2012 in the sense that he'll now credibly be able to share blame for poor economic times with someone else. The economy then becomes a bipartisan problem as opposed to an Obama problem.
Q: Does the Tea Party have staying power? Could it become a legitimate third party?
A: I don't think there is much chance that they become a national third party. One, they express no consistent interest in doing so. Two, the movement itself is so amorphous that even different Tea Party leaders in different parts of the country disagree on what it is all about. Third, our political system has so many structural barriers set up to discourage third-party movements that it's hard to imagine a Tea Party being successful in the long term.
Their future depends largely on what the Republican Party wants to do with them. I think they're going to end up being a net benefit for the Republicans in 2010, even if they cost them specific races in places like Delaware, simply because of the enthusiasm and action that they've helped to spur. But in an election cycle when voters aren't as receptive to conservative messages, they won't be a net benefit anymore. It depends on whether the Republican Party wants to adapt some of their own platform to fit with some of these more extreme viewpoints, or not.
This is also more reflective of this general tension both parties are facing now — the tension between ideological purity and electoral success. The farther you get to the poles, the farther you get from where most voters are, but the closer you get to what your small, vocal and influential base desires. This is shaping to be an election where the Republican base can get a good deal of what it wants, because the economy and other factors mean that it's going to be a good year for the Republicans. In 2006 or 2008, the Tea Party movement would have been disastrous for them.
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