The 2006 Midterm Elections in the United States and the Consequences for Policy-Making in the 110th Congress Eric M. Uslaner Professor of Government and Politics University of Maryland--College Park College Park MD 20742 USA firstname.lastname@example.org
In the 2006 elections the Democrats took control of both the House and the Senate. • Most political pundits expected the Democrats to win the House, but not the Senate. • The Democratic victories reflected voter discontent with the war in Iraq and with what voters saw as corruption among public officials. • While the Democrats now control both houses of Congress, their majorities are not large enough to let them set the national agenda. The President still is the most important political figure in the country.
The 2006 Elections • Democrats gained (at this writing) 30 seats in the House of Representatives and 6 seats in the Senate. These gains gave them a majority of 232-203 in the House of Representatives and just 51-49 in the Senate. • The Senate majority is complicated by an "Independent Democrat," Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who lost the Democratic primary to an anti-war activist but ran as an Independent and won.
The 2006 Congressional elections followed history in one key respect and departed from history in another. • Every time in American history that the House of Representatives has shifted from one party to another, the Senate has also shifted. While most people did not expect the Democrats to win the Senate in 2006, the historical pattern held. • 2006 marked the first time in American history when any party maintained all of the seats it held in both the House and the Senate. No seat occupied by a Democrat changed to the Republicans in 2006.
Historical Patterns of Midterm Elections • Historically, the President's party almost always loses seats in the House of Representatives in midterm elections. The only exceptions since 1900 have been in 1998 (most recently) and 1934. • The losses are generally greatest for Presidents in their second term. Since the 1930s, the average loss for the President's party has been 35 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate. The 2006 election results are about average based upon historical trends.
Midterm Elections as Referenda • Explanations for midterm losses by the President's party: • "Surge and decline" thesis: higher turnout for the President's party in Presidential elections, lower turnout (and fewer votes) in off-years. • End of the President's honeymoon: Presidents are most popular when they are first elected. As time goes by, their political decisions alienate some voters and they become less popular.
Midterm elections act as referenda on the President's popularity and the state of the nation. Midterm elections are often seen as the public's opportunity to express support or opposition to the President based upon: • How popular the President is; • Whether people feel that the country is heading in the right direction; • Optimism over the state of the economy; • Whether the country is at peace or at war; • Overall performance of the President and his party.
The President's party generally loses more seats in a President's second term because: • Voters become "tired" of Presidents as their time in office has increased. The only recent exception has been Bill Clinton, whose party lost its majority in the 1994 Republican landslide but who became more popular when the Republican party tried to remove him from office. The 1994 midterm loss for the Democratic party (a loss of 52 seats) was the largest first-term loss since 1920.
Presidents care more about minimizing their losses in their first term. They still must be reelected and they need cooperation from Congress to enact their programs. • Some students of elections say that Presidents even manipulate the economy to be strongest in their reelection years, weaker in their first midterm elections, and weakest in their second midterms. This is a controversial thesis, but it is clear that Presidents have larger stakes in their first midterms compared to their second midterms.
Presidents' parties lose more seats when the economy is not faring well, when the country is at war, and when the President's own popularity is low. • When the country is at war, the President's party generally loses 30 House seats in a midterm election--exactly the number lost in 2006.
Big "Wave" Elections • The big "wave" elections (when a political tide brings in many members of the party that does not control the White House) are largely referenda on the President's popularity. • Big "wave" elections: 1930, 1938, 1942, 1946, 1950, 1958, 1966, 1974, 1982, and 1994. Italicized elections represent gains of more than 40 seats in the House for the party out of power. • Note that "wave" elections have become less common in recent decades.
Most big "wave" elections occur when voters are upset over the economy. • However, in 1966 and 1950, involvement in war led Americans to punish the party in power.
Typically, the most important aspect of "referendum voting" is the performance of the economy. In 2006, the economy was relatively strong. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/eag/eag.us.htm) reported that in October the unemployment rate was low (4.4 percent, about the same as it had been for months), the inflation rate was actually negative (-.5, reflecting lower energy prices); but: salaries and productivity were flat and the robust gains in employment had slowed dramatically. • Nevertheless, 2006 did not qualify as a referendum on the economy. Polls showed that Americans were divided on whether the economy was in good or bad shape. Even as some key indicators were positive, economic growth was uneven.
Sources of the 2006 Wave • In 1994, when the Democrats lost 52 seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate: • President Clinton's popularity ranged between 45-50% in polls. • 24% of Americans had confidence in Congress. • Democrats had many seats they could lose, conrolling almost 60% of the House and 57% of the Senate
In 2006, Republicans had a small majority in the House (53%) and 55 of 100 Senate seats. • However, President Bush's popularity was much lower than President Clinton's (between 35 and 40 percent). Bush's average popularity rating in the fall was lower than any level for President Clinton; • Only 16 percent of Americans approved of the performance of Congress in the last poll before the election. • Only 29% of Americans said that the country was headed on the "right track."
The 2006 elections were a "wave" (some called them a "tsunami") as Republicans at all levels lost. Democrats gained six Governorships (the only incumbent Governor to lose was a Republican) and 321 state legislative seats, taking control of 10 state legislatures. • Democrats won Senate seats that had long been safe for incumbents. No incumbent had been beaten in Montana since 1988, in Ohio since 1976, and in Rhode Island since 1936. Several of the defeated House incumbents had won 70% or more in 2004 and one member, involved in a scandal, had won 93% of the vote two years ago.
Waves and Ripples • 2006 stood out as a "wave" election because landslides for either party have become far less common in recent years. Since 1970, only five elections have seen shifts of 20 or more House seats for either party (1974, 1980, 1982, 1994, and 2006). The average number of House seats changing parties from 1970-2004 has been 14.5; the average change from 1996 to 2004 has been just 4 seats.
Incumbent reelection rates have been extremely high--over 98 percent in recent years for the House of Representatives but lower for the Senate. • Electoral margins have also increased sharply. From 1992 to 1994, about 40 House seats were determined by margins of 5% or more. By 2004 only 10 House seats were competitive. Early in 2006, observers thought that only 10-15 seats would be competitive in 2006. • By the late 1990s, 75% of House incumbents won by margins of 60% or more.
"All Politics is Local" • Former House Speaker Thomas P. ("Tip") O'Neill (D, MA) said: "All politics is local." • Since the 1970s, House members have developed strong reputations among their constituents as "one of the people." They do favors for constituents ("casework") and they bring projects to the district ("pork barrel"). Constituency service is nonpartisan and incumbent members of Congress can get votes from supporters of both parties.
The increasing emphasis on constituency service has made it easier for incumbent members of the House to gain reelection (Senators do not do as much constituency service.) • Challengers lack the name recognition of incumbent members, so they attract fewer votes. • Unknown challengers find it difficult to raise enough money to be competitive to incumbents, who raise millions of dollars. Typically, incumbents raise 4-6 times as much money as challengers.
Republican incumbents find it easier than Democrats to raise money. Political action committees, or PACs (which donate money to candidates) favor incumbents and business PACs (the most numerous and wealthy) prefer Republicans. Once the Republicans gained the majority in 1994, they far outdistanced Democrats in political contributions. • Research shows that contributions to incumbents don't affect their margins, but money is critical to challengers. Challengers who cannot raise adequate funds have almost no chance of winning--and unknown challengers without political experience have almost no chance of raising much money.
Why 2006 Was Different • In two words: • Iraq • Corruption The 2006 election was "nationalized." The advantages many incumbents had, including money, were not sufficient to guarantee victory.
Iraq • The war in Iraq had become increasingly unpopular. By the time of the election, most Americans thought that the decision to go to war had been wrong from the start. 55% said that the United States should set a timetable for the withdrawal of all troops. 60% of Americans called themselves opponents of the war in Iraq and almost 60% with opinions believed that it had made the United States more vulnerable to terrorism.
Only a quarter of Americans said that the President had a clear plan for the war. • Two-thirds of Americans disapproved of the job President Bush was doing on Iraq and by 45-33 percent they believed that the Democrats would do a better job in handling the situation in Iraq. • In exit polls, 36% of voters said that the war in Iraq was extremely important--and 60% of these voters chose Democrats for the House. (39% said that terrorism was extremely important but only 53% voted Republican). • 87% who strongly approved of the war voted Republican for the House, but they were only 19% of the electorate. 87% who strongly disapproved of the war voted Democratic, and they were 40% of the electorate.
Republican members of Congress faced charges of corruption, far more frequently than in the past. Many were linked to "superlobbyist" Jack Abramoff, who pled guilty to five felony charges in 2006 and was sentenced to five years in jail and ordered to pay restitution of $21 million to Indian tribes he had defrauded. He lobbied for conservative religious organizations who wanted to stop gambling on Indian reservations and once this legislation was passed, Abramoff "changed sides" and lobbied for the Indian tribes to make casinos legal again. To get his legislation passed, he either bribed or made large campaign contributions to members of Congress, mostly Republicans.
Other Republicans, including Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R, CA), Rep. Mark Foley (R, FL), and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R, TX) were charged with other acts of corruption. • Cunningham, who is now in jail, solicited bribes in return for procuring defense contracts for businesses in his district.
Cunningham "Bribe Menu" • Here is the "price list" for Cunningham's favors to contractors. Figures on the left indicate contract amounts in millions of dollars, numbers on the right indicate bribe demands in thousands of dollars. "BT" indicates the price of Cunningham's boat (yacht).
Rep. Mark Foley (R, FL) abruptly resigned from the House weeks before the 2006 election when it was revealed that he had sent instant messages and e-mails to teenage male pages (interns) who worked in the House of Representatives. These messages were sexually promiscuous. Some House leaders including Majority Leader John Boehner (R, OH) charged that the Speaker, Dennis Hastert, had been informed earlier of these messages but had not acted against Foley. Republican Representatives quickly acted to return campaign contributions from Foley.
Tom DeLay, the Majority Leader, had engineered the redrawing of Congressional districts in his home state of Texas to give the Republicans six extra House seats. He was later indicted for violation of campaign finance laws, charged with transferring funds from corporate contributions he raised in Washington to Texas races (illegal under Texas law). Two of his former aides were convicted in the Abramoff scandal and earlier the House had rebuked DeLay on three unrelated ethics issues.
The Abramoff scandal had few immediate victims, notably Rep. Bob Ney (R, OH), who was found guilty of bribery. Even though he initially refused to resign, he was replaced by another candidate by the Ohio Republican party (who lost in a safe Republican district). • DeLay also withdrew, but too late for the Republicans to name a new candidate. He thought about running again, but was convinced he would lose, so the Republicans had no official candidate in his district. • Foley also withdrew too late, his name remained on the ballot, and a Democrat won the seat.
By the time of the election, corruption emerged as the most important issue in voters' minds. 41% of voters said that corruption was extremely important in their voting decisions and 59% of these voters chose the Democratic candidates for the House. • 20 incumbent House members, all Republicans, lost their reelection races--two others, one from each party lost primaries. (Nevertheless, 94.5% of incumbents seeking reelection were successful.) Six of these 20 faced corruption scandals and three Republican open seats (Foley, DeLay, and Ney) also fell prey to the corruption scandal. • Almost a third of the Republican losses in the 2006 stemmed from charges of corruption, rather than from disapproval of the war in Iraq or of President Bush.
22% of voters, according to the exit polls, said that their vote was an expression of support for President Bush. 36% said it was an expression of opposition to the President. • 57% of political independents and 29% of white evangelical Christians (the most loyal base of the Republican party) voted for Democratic candidates. So did 20% of self-identified conservatives and 70% of Latinos. Married men, a strong base for the Republicans, gave only 47% of their vote to Republican House candidates.
15% of voters who cast ballots for Bush in 2004 voted Democratic for the House in 2006, compared to the 6% of Kerry voters who cast ballots for Republican candidates for Congress. 28% of voters who said that they were "enthusiastic" about the Republican leaders in Congress voted for Democrats, but they were only 11% of the electorate. Of the 22% who were angry at Republican leaders in Congress, 94% voted Democratic.
Earlier and Later Waves • If 2006 represented a worse scenario for President Bush than 1994 did for President Clinton, why did the Democrats pick up fewer seats in 2006 than the Republicans did in 1994, when the country was not at war and when there were no widespread corruption scandals? • Political polarization plays a key role: Voters are more motivated by ideology and partisanship than they were even 12 years ago.
Congressional districts are less competitive than they were even a decade ago. Some say that this is because state legislatures draw districts to favor one party over another more than in the past. However, the evidence for this argument is weak. • Congressional districts are less competitive because their electorates are more homogenous. Neighborhoods are becoming less diverse as people seek to live near people like themselves.
Incumbent advantages have also grown, especially for campaign spending. • The two tables below (from www.opensecrets.org ) show the big advantages that incumbents have over challengers. In 2004 incumbent House candidates had a 5-1 advantage over challengers for Democratic incumbents and 6-1 for Republican incumbents. In 2006 these advantages fell to 4.5 - 1 for both parties, but note the overall increase in funding for Democratic challengers. While Republicans had a strong advantage over Democrats, Democratic challengerswere faring better financially.
Overall, elections became more expensive in 2006 compared to 2004. Democratic challengers raised more money than Republican challengers in 2006 for both the House and especially for the Senate (where they raised 66% more, $2,619,000 compared to $1,574,000). • Yet, all challengers were far outspent by incumbents.
The "cost of beating an incumbent"--the amount of money challengers spent on average to defeat House incumbents increased by more than 15 fold from 1974 to 2004:
Republicans tried to focus on local issues in the elections, since people like their own member of Congress far more than they like the Congress. By 60% to 36%, voters said that they were casting ballots on national rather than local issues. And even 51% who voted on local issues supported Democratic candidates.
After the Election • What are the prospects for the 110th Congress? • Many new Democratic members are moderates from districts that have long been Republican. • The Republican conference in the House will be much more conservative. Many of the Republican incumbents who lost came from the Northeast, the last bastion of moderate ("Rockefeller" Republicans). These districts had been trending Democratic and it will be difficult for the Republicans to win these seats back.
New Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised an ambitious agenda for the new Democratic majority in the House. The New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and the Republican party's "Contract with America" in 1995 had 100-day plans to remake the country. The Democrats propose to enact broad domestic legislation within the first 100 hours of the new Congress.
The first agenda item is ethics reform within Congress. Next, there will be a focus on enacting the recommendations of the 9/11 commission on terrorist attacks, raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, cut the interest rate on student loans in half, allow the government to negotiate directly with the pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices for Medicare patients, broaden the types of stem cell research allowed with federal funds, and then enact a "pay as you go" program to require new revenue sources for new spending.
These proposals are largely domestic. The issue of withdrawing troops from Iraq will have to wait because there is no consensus on an alternative plan for Iraq. Few Democrats want to keep troops in Iraq, but there is little agreement on how quickly to get them out and what might happen to Iraq once the troops are withdrawn.
The Democrats' dilemma is threefold: • First, the President is still in control of foreign policy. While he has promised to work with the Democrats and seemed more conciliatory after the election, there is much bad blood between the two sides. This has already been reflected in the President's renomination of nine federal judges that the Democrats had previously blocked as well as John R. Bolton as United Nations ambassador.
Second, House Democrats may agree on a policy on Iraq but Senate Democrats have a slender majority that depends upon Senator Lieberman, a supporter of the President on the war. Lieberman was reelected as an Independent and has promised to vote with the Democrats to organize the Senate. However, he has not ruled out changing sides if the Democrats become too radical for his tastes. • Senate Democrats thus depend, for their majority, on one member who is out of step with the party on Iraq.
Third, the House Democratic Party has already showed signs of dissent, when Speaker-elect Pelosi tried to replace her second in command, Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD) with John Murtha (PA), a more loyal ally and a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq. The attempt failed and Pelosi and Hoyer, longtime opponents, made peace. But many worry that this battle and others will make her a less effective Speaker-- and thus give more power to the President.
On foreign policy more generally, there will be Congressional pressures for greater consultation with other nations, especially America's allies. This may open the door to more multi-national initiatives, especially on Iraq and perhaps on the Middle East more generally. • Beyond Iraq and perhaps on environmental policy, there is little likelihood for a major change in foreign policy. The focus will shift to the 2008 Presidential elections.
The leading candidates for the 2008 nominations are Senator John McCain (AZ) for the Republicans, a strong hawk on Iraq; and for the Democrats, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY), who has been more supportive than most Democrats of the President on Iraq. A "wild card" is Illinois Democratic Senator Barak Obama, who is a strong opponent of the war but who has established a reputation as a moderate who works well across party lines.