Guest Post: Mid-Term Elections, The Tea Party and Historical Context

Allen V. is a political scientist. His academic specialties include international relations, American Politics, and American Political Thought. He is also a veteran of the world of campaign politics. I am happy to share with you some of his musings about this campaign season.

There is a lot of discussion about a fundamental transformation underway in American Politics.  Right leaning political pundits celebrate the Tea Party movement as a historic shift from the longstanding political environment.  Beck in particular, with his inspired constitutional restoration to save a document “hanging by a thread” stands as the best example of this line of thinking.  Many Democrats have bought this rhetoric and are fretting this election as a new “end of times.”

It is certain that Republicans will do very well in the upcoming midterms.  What is often forgotten is that the party out of power (the opposite party of the sitting president) often does very well in midterm elections.  We seem to have lost a little historical context as we consider the current election.

In the House, for example, there are currently 255 Democrats (178 Republicans).  Based on Nate Silvers’ prediction based on 100,000 simulations of current polling data, the new House after the election would likely be 226.5 Republicans (208.5 Democrats).  I say we have a lottery to decide which Congressman gets the Solomon treatment.

If these numbers hold true, that would represent a shift of 47 seats (rounding for that .5 seat).  This transition would be just the 7th largest shift since 1942.  It would fall 7 seats short of the Republican’s 1994 Contract with America which netted 54 additional seats for the GOP.   It also falls just short of the largest GOP losses of 48 seats in 1958 and 1974.

The average loss, throwing out the two times that the party in power gained seats, is 29.5 seats.  This election will certainly be above average in terms of lost seats, but is unlikely to be historic as has been argued by some.

In many ways, given the deep recession, the GOP performance seems to clearly underwhelm.  GOP approval ratings are still lower than approval ratings for President Obama.   The selection of tea party candidates in a number of seat have made them competitive elections when in any other year with similar conditions they would be strongly in GOP hands.  High unemployment and other ongoing economic concerns should point to a historic transition.  Instead, this one is likely to fall only in the top third of midterm elections in terms of number of seats lost.

What does it mean?  Electors are certainly upset, and while some are clearly motivated by the more extreme rhetoric of Beck, Limbaugh, etc., most Americans remain fed up with both parties.  They are willing to replace a number of members of Congress (particularly Democrats in susceptible seats) , but are also underwhelmed by the choices offered by the GOP.  The GOP will perform under its potential in this election cycle given the conditions in which it takes place.

I believe it is the excessively conservative ideas embedded in the GOP’s candidates and messages which challenge what the American people really want – responsible and shared governance by both parties.  Americans don’t want truth determined by ideology, they want members of Congress to sit down and to work together regardless of ideology.  After all, isn’t that the true lesson of the founding fathers?  Those men came together with very different views about the future and direction of our nation.  They compromised, worked through differences and created the document that is so frequently discussed this election cycle.

26 Replies to “Guest Post: Mid-Term Elections, The Tea Party and Historical Context”

  1. “Americans don’t want truth determined by ideology, they want members of Congress to sit down and to work together regardless of ideology.”

    This seems less and less likely to happen. Allen V, what type of changes do you think can bring us back to such a politics? I do not see a collective change of heart taking place.

    Madison said we need constitutional government because we are not angels. It seems that our political demons have changed we may need auxiliary protections which are better suited for our day.

  2. Allen,

    You write:

    Americans don’t want truth determined by ideology, they want members of Congress to sit down and to work together regardless of ideology.

    As a political scientist, do you have evidence of this assumption? Or are you projecting upon the American electorate? I sit here and see a Republican strategy, for example, to completely shut down a Democratic controlled Congress. And while Republican approval numbers are worse than Democrats, American voters still seem to rather prefer Republicans (astoundingly). Why would this happen if Republicans run on a platform of doing things exactly as they’ve done in the past, which had previously led to catastrophe for us as a nation? Why would anyone take this Republican party seriously?

  3. Nate Silver also finds the numbers of competitive races doubling from recent years (see 10/9 blog). He has the number at 47, as you state, but adds, “But, as I noted at the end of the article, the confidence interval on this forecast is very wide. Its margin of error is about ±30 seats — meaning that a gain of as few as 17 seats, or as many as 78, is entirely possible — and there is a small chance of even larger or smaller gains.”

    So, this is underwhelming, eh? What would you call overwhelming?

    Of course Americans are not ready to re-embrace the GOP, but polling shows that people are voting for Republican candidates as an explicit check on total Democrat domination of government. How else can Manchin’s dimming prospects in WV be explained? Cook updated his competitive races today, which include Barney Frank and Jim Oberstar. They’re likely Democrat, but they’re competitive.

    I recall quite vividly the collapse of Republicans in 2008, the white, male, Southern party doomed to 40+ years of irrelevance. How silly it all sounds now, eh? Gallup has likely voters swinging Republican by 12 – 17 points. No, no, they’re not all Republicans, to be sure. Call them anti-liberals.

  4. Dan,

    A couple of thoughts.

    First, if you look at the ideological distribution of Americans, what you find is that most Americans are in the middle, producing a very nice centrist curve:

    If you overlay the ideology of members of Congress on top of that, you get almost the exact opposite curve: (Congress represents the dotted line)

    The average Republican in Congress is way too Conservative for the Average Voter. The average Democrat is too liberal. Americans don’t see either side representing them. This plays out in party politics where party activists have the same attributes. Through convention processes (just ask Bob Bennett) and primaries, each party tends to pick candidates ideologically distant from the average voter in that district.

    Second, this effect then plays out when applied to specific policies. Politicians can very successful create fear in the electorate by framing a policy as either way too conservative or liberal. Either one works. Attach labels like “Socialist” or “Marxist,” “Fascist” or “Extreme” on one side or the other and public support diminishes. Politicians can build the negatives on any given policy much more easily than support by using these simplistic ideological labels. Voters know they don’t want “that” kind of policy. People reject the policy attached to any of these labels as most do not see themselves as either far-left or far-right. But they are never offered the more centrist solutions as there is little compromise between the too-far right GOP and the too-far left Democratic Party in Congress.

    Consider a specific example: The GOP was very successful in demonizing the recent Health Care bill as way too liberal (Socialist/Marxist/etc.) Few Americans want “Marxist” policies (even though the bill was far removed from it), Public support for the bill is very low and people are scared of it.

    However, if you ask them what they want instead of that “Socialist” bill – asking specifics, they give you a laundry list of things that cross the ideological spectrum and that actually includes many elements of the actual bill. Some of the measures have a 60%+ approval rating:

    People aren’t seeking ideological consistency in Health Care. They don’t think in those terms. They seek solutions. When either political party plays the ideology card, they tend to have some short term effect in the political game (elections, etc.), but they make the governance game with its requisite compromise nearly impossible.

    Lastly, what exactly are you arguing is catastrophic? Are you making assumptions?

    So GOP leadership in Congress tends to be way too conservative for the average voter. Democratic Leadership much too liberal.

  5. Jana,

    Well, yes there is a large margin of error – there are hundreds of races dealing with many difficult to manage variables. Silver’s number, like all statistics, is a best guess. 78 would certainly be overwhelming, but odds of that are extremely low. Just as is the low number of 17, which you would have to admit would certainly be underwhelming.

    Personally, I see the environment as much worse than the Republican Revolution of 1994. I base this environment primarily on economics. So, for me, anything less than the 54 seats in 1994 is underwhelming.

    It is true, and has long been true, that Americans like divided government. I believe that is because they hope to check the extreme elements of either party and force some compromise.

    I found it interesting that you threw out the “liberal” term. That is the power of the rhetoric (again my belief) from the LimbHaniBeck media. Liberals have their biased media as well. But for each they see:

    Ideology –> Truth


    Truth/Facts –> Ideology.

    There is an important difference. Voters care much more about jobs than they do ideology. If things were better on that front, the ideology arguments of “liberal” wouldn’t really have much impact.

  6. Chris,

    I am sure you have some ideas as well. Personally, I don’t see this as the only time in our history that this has happened. The divisive nature of today’s ideological battles do seems particularly virulent.

    I see the solution in the raw game of politics. Eventually someone will take the electoral risk of calling out the two extremes. They succeed and draw politics back near the center. Two very disparate examples:

    1) Tony Blair’s “Third Way” – by splitting the difference between Conservative and Labor extremes, he becomes a force that moves British Politics back to the Center. His impact continues under David Cameron who know rules in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats of all people.

    2) You won’t like the example, but Ronald Reagan. Not the simple and single-minded Reagan created by today’s Conservatives – but the real one. Specifically I am thinking of a couple of events. One his repudiation of the John Birch society, the revisionist 1960s version of Conservatism that Beck is reincarnating today. He called them out and then along with William F. Buckley and others the GOP was purged of this more extreme element.

    Later as President, he builds the Reagan Coalition which also included a lot of Democrats. Conservatives today forget Reagan working closely with Tip O’Neal to save Social Security. Or even how he used deficit spending to pull us out of the Carter Recession. Or the progressive nature of the tax system he eventually went with after tinkering in earlier cuts.

    I would strongly encourage someone to try this approach in 2012.

  7. He called them out and then along with William F. Buckley and others the GOP was purged of this more extreme element

    I believe you have that backwards. William F. Buckley (from his post as the founder of National Review) had far more to do with the marginalization of the John Birch Society than Ronald Reagan ever did. Buckley published his famous article in 1962. Reagan never said much on the issue until 1966, and then only in the careful, measured way a political candidate who doesn’t want to offend potential supporters can.

  8. Conservatives today forget Reagan working closely with Tip O’Neal to save Social Security.

    His solution didn’t work very well.Since 1982 or so, Social Security has used the additional payroll taxes to “lend” ~6 trillion dollars to the rest of the government. We have nothing to show for that, the so called trust fund is an accounting fiction. One of the big reasons why our fiscal outlook is suddenly so bleak is that we have finally reached the point where Social Security expenditures are higher than revenues, and there is no way to collect on the “trust fund” other than to raise taxes (or make severe spending cuts in other programs).

    Or even how he used deficit spending to pull us out of the Carter Recession

    Quite the opposite. The only reason why Reagan (rather reluctantly) was willing to run a large deficit was to pay for a military buildup to win the Cold War. If he had his way, he would have cut domestic spending further to balance the budget even after tax cuts.

    The number one thing he did to end the underlying economic problems of the country was to support Paul Volcker’s actions to end the loose money policies of the 1970s. That was tough medicine. It didn’t end a recession at first, rather it started one.

    Or the progressive nature of the tax system he eventually went with after tinkering in earlier cuts.

    You mean a 28% top marginal rate instead of a 50% one?

  9. Mark,

    The military spending was deficit spending. Not disimilar to public works projects today. While those deficits certainly disappointed a lot of the true believers in Reaganomics, I see it as much more purposeful. Certainly he talked a good game, but I don’t believe that one “reluctantly” acquires more debt in real dollars than all American presidents before him. Such actions come with intent. Debt as a percent of GDP increased from 32.5% of GDP to 53.1%. $1.7 Trillion of additional debt comes during the Reagan years.

  10. Mark,


    Top marginal tax rates under all but one year of Ronald Regan’s presidency were over 50%. Yet, he is now called the ideal for tax cuts and low taxes. Obama is suggesting that the top marginal rate go to 39.6%. He he is called a socialist for the policy. Now we could debate whether any tax increases are good idea right now, but that is a different question.

    Also, you can’t just consider top marginal rates. Look at income and percent of taxes paid. Consider this chart:

    Also, Reagan is responsible for enacting the Earned Income Tax Credit. This is the epitome of progressive taxation as it represents a redistribution program giving money to the working poor.

  11. Top marginal tax rates under all but one year of Ronald Regan’s presidency were over 50%

    At the start of Reagan’s presidency the top marginal rate was 70%. He signed a bill reducing it to 50% in 1981. He approved a tax reform package that reduced it to 28% in 1986. The first of these tax cuts was phased in over three years – so yes the top rates remained above fifty percent for a while.

    Reagan is responsible for enacting the Earned Income Tax Credit

    The EITC dates to 1975. It was expanded in 1986.

    Obama is suggesting that the top marginal rate go to 39.6%. He he is called a socialist for the policy

    Not even Glenn Beck claims Obama is a socialist for that alone. That’s insane. Major government expansion in health care is where most of the “socialist” criticism comes from.

  12. Mark,

    I appreciate your posts, they make me smile. They reinforce one of the major arguments in my original post that Chris H. kindly posted.

    I am not arguing that Reagan was this solid liberal. He is certainly quite conservative on many issues. But the world isn’t black & white, liberal vs. conservative – with ideal types sitting on the two extreme of the spectrum and nothing in the middle. When you seek truth through pre-conceived ideological lenses, the result is that you make Reagan a single-minded characture of his more complex self.

    In each post here, those lenses have force you to discount any facts that counter the ideological narrative. As one of a number of examples, EITC was an insignificant program until Reagan enacts a significantly modified and expanded program as part of HIS 1986 Tax Reform Act.

    It would takes pages to address the greater complexity and ideological diversity of Reagan’s policies you discount and/or ignore in our discussion. Part of Reagan’s appeal to such a broad set of voters are these diversity of policies. That is my point to Chris H.

    It is ironic, however, that many of today’s conservatives who are revising Reagan and rewriting this complexity to create a “pure” Reagan are motivated by a brand of Conservatism (in this case the libertarian infused 1950/60 version first created in the McCarthy era) that he publicly rejected. Beck represents this new version well, and if he were consistent – he should call Reagan “too liberal” as the John Birch Society did back then.

  13. My understanding is that after the first tax cut enacted under Reagan, all but three of the fourteen subsequent tax bills subsequently enacted during his Administration was intended to and did increase tax revenues. Those subsequent tax acts during the Reagan Administration took back not quite half of the original tax cuts.

    I am not sure how the Tea Part can support a president like Reagan who signed 11 (count them, eleven) bills increasing taxes during his Administration.

  14. People who call Obama a “socialist” immediately signal their lack of understanding regarding what “socialism” actually is. They have invented a new boogeyman socialism to scare the kids, imo.

  15. “Americans don’t want truth determined by ideology, they want members of Congress to sit down and to work together regardless of ideology.”

    Haven’t politicians on both sides made it impossible for this to happen? Once you convince your electorate that Obama is a Marxist/Socialist/Nazi Kenyan who wants to abort your babies and kill your grandmother there isn’t really anything you can do but put up a blockade against anything the President supports. Otherwise you then become the Marxist/Socialist/Nazi.

    It’s the main problem I think any Tea Party candidate that wins will run into, if they do anything other than drop taxes and repeal healthcare they will be looked at as failures.

    You may think Americans want congress to work together (I know I do) but I don’t believe the vocal minority wants anything like that to happen. Compromise is the dirty word my Conservative friends have been throwing around lately. And that vocal minority is the only reason people like Angle in Nevada have a chance.

  16. I completely agree that Reagan was most definitely not a doctrinaire conservative on every conceivable issue. Few are, and even fewer politicians. Reagan certainly did sign increases to social security/payroll taxes and a few reductions of his initial tax cuts. If the OMB numbers are accurate, he signed legislation that that cut taxes by a total of 275 billion and other legislation that increased taxes by 132 billion. That is a net decrease of ~143 billion.

    I think this entire debate about tax cuts and increases as if they existed in a vacuum independent of particular spending programs is insane. The only way political reality is likely to set in (short of government insolvency) is if we get a balanced budget amendment. So when a program is cut, taxes automatically go down. And when a program is expanded, taxes automatically go up. 2/3 vote for necessary exceptions.

    For example, Republicans naturally do not want to see any taxes increase. That would, in the short term, make the recession worse. Over the long run tax increases sufficient to balance the budget would make things better, because people would have less reason to believe the government or the currency was going to go under. If adopted as part of a balanced budget amendment, it would immediately create the right balance of political pressure for and against expanding/reforming various entitlement and other programs. No more pretending we can have it both ways, a pretense which both parties are up to their eyeballs in.

  17. To really understand the roots of today’s political climate one has to look at a number of things: the 9-11 attacks which unhinged us as a nation, the fact that no Republican in my lifetime has reduced the size of government or the deficit, the bad economy for which both parties are responsible, the average age of tea party members (they’re old and white), the Reagan mythology some of which is cited above, campaign finance corruption aided and abetted by the supreme court, the scandal of redistricting, anti-Obama racism coupled with Obama’s lack of real leadership, the astounding ignorance of many voters who couldn’t define socialism if they had to, the rise of the internet and cable news (I use the term news loosely), the inability of us as a people or our leaders to think long-term…I could go on and on, but it’s time for my nap.

  18. BHodges,

    Very true – these labels are thrown around to generate fear but are almost always misapplied. I heard in one interview Obama called a Socialist, a Marxist, and a Fascist.

    Given that it is impossible by definition to be each of those things at the same time, it was both funny and sad.

    Not that one has to agree with Obama, nor that we shouldn’t debate policies – but those terms simply destroy any meaningful discourse/debate regarding policies. They are mind numbing.

  19. you’re welcome, allen v.

    so i had a question while riding home on the bus. it’s not exactly related to the topic and could easily be a bit silly, as i know next to nothing of politics and even less of political science.

    thinking about how you describe the right and left as too conservative and too liberal for most americans, how things are more complex than a simple binary, and how (misappllied) labels are an impediment to debate, besides nodding my head repeadedly, i wondered to what extent you might be speaking autobiographically and whether it is taboo to ask a political scientist what his or her personal views are and party is.

    i think that most of my professors in religious studies and whatever would at least like to claim that their personal views and religious afiliation or lack thereof should not matter, that in the act of analysis they maintain a professional aloofness (i don’t dare use such a dirty word as objectivity, of course).

    are political scientists similar?

  20. “Given that it is impossible by definition to be each of those things at the same time, it was both funny and sad. ”

    I once heard Clinton called a great man, a liar, and an adulterer, given that it is impossible to be each of those things at the same time…

    Oh wait, we have multiple aspects of our personality. We don’t just tick ourselves off in one box. Whether you’re talking about Bush or Obama you could probably look at one instance of their policy/personality and say “that’s a bit…socialist, facist, marxist”. Would they be a 100% true believer? No, but even Hitler had some traits hypocritical to fascism, so did that make him not a fascist?

    Of course, saying that we’re all a bit of all kinds of labels kind of ruins the purpose of a label to begin with, but that doesn’t change the reality.

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