The Midterm Elections: A Socialist Perspective

Many of us awoke the morning of November 3rd to the crowing of mainstream media: it was, as they had predicted, a landslide victory for Republicans on this year’s midterm elections. Some pundits, even those on NPR, intimated that the Obama administration had “overreached”, being far too Democratic for the U.S. electorate to stomach. Whatever you think of the Obama administration’s first few years, this rang false to those of us who have worked election cycles from the inside.

Here’s an examination of what really happened during the midterm elections, and what we can do about it – from a Socialist perspective. At least we were clear that the Obama administration is anything but Socialist.

What really happened?

The super-wealthy directors of finance and corporate capital got very angry and scared at the prospect of genuine financial regulation and health insurance reform – which briefly dangled the possibility of real taxes on their wealth and actual government oversight on their sectors. These changes might, in the future, prevent the kind of “innovations” in the financial sector that caused our latest round of financial crisis – innovatively finding ways to bilk regular people out of more and more of their hard-earned cash to store in offshore tax shelters. These changes might have reduced the spectacular profits of the pharmaceutical industry and private corporations. They reacted poorly to this notion, and enlisted various parts of the political machines they have built or bought to put a stop to it. This year, they also had a new tool in their toolbox: the Supreme Court’s decision on a case called Citizens United allowed for unprecedented amounts of money to be spent by corporations on political ads and other campaign tools without limit.

At the same time, the Democrats shrunk from their legislative victories (such as they were) and lost the messaging war to the Republicans big time. This came as no huge surprise to those of us engaged in the day-to-day work of helping the Democrats win elections. The signs that Democrats were going downhill, however, were different from the mainstream media’s cries of a “mandate” or “overreach.” Here’s what we saw:

  • Large Democratic-side electoral operations and their funders were hell-bent on a strategy of turning out voters for whom 2008 was the first election in which they participated (known as “Obama surge voters”) for 2010. This was simply not going to work. It’s not clear that people who came out to vote for Obama, with all of his charisma and cachet, in 2008, would have come back out for him in 2010—since it’s always the case that more people turn out in Presidential election years, and some section of the electorate is disappointed with his accomplishments so far. It’s very unlikely that they would come out to vote for more local candidates, who often had little of the energy or charisma of Obama in 2008. What other options were available? Many, including labor’s successful strategy in 2006 of focusing on “drop off” voters — those voters who vote in Presidential years, but not in midterm elections, who tend to be Democratic voters, single women, and people of color. Alternatively, a strategy of engaging in persuasion with white working class voters over a longer period of time could have led to more success. However, the so-far failed strategy of turning out first-time 2008 voters is still the driving force of some of these operations today, even in the face of the enormous losses in November.
  • Lots of large Democratic donors did one of three things: one, sat out the midterms entirely by barely funding groups working on the election; two, giving lots of money at the absolute last minute, long after it could move a strategy of persuasion; or three, chose to take the opportunity to experiment – dangerously, by funding specific local races and ignoring more critical state-level fights.
  • Not surprisingly, “surge” voters did not turn out. Any political operative would have expected this; it’s notoriously difficult to get people who rarely vote to turn out for a race with many candidates in a non-Presidential year.

It wasn’t simply the fault of Democratic operations or donors, however. The mainstream media beat a steady drum leading into the elections that this would be a Republican sweep. This might as well have been free advertising for the Republicans. It’s well known that the mainstream media can create self-fulfilling prophecies, and this year it started early. Although it wasn’t yet set in stone that the Republicans would have a leg up, and many political operatives were tearing their hair out trying to interpret polls (public and private) which swung all over the map, mainstream media’s landslide messages helped to generate an “enthusiasm gap” where there may not otherwise have been one. When every channel shouts “Democrats are going to lose,” this has the effect of telling Democratic voters who don’t go to the polls religiously, “stay home, don’t bother, and shut up.”

Union membership exemplified an actual “enthusiasm gap.” In terms of raw numbers, unions membership is shrinking due to the jobs crisis and this has a negative effect; building trades and public services are being hard hit by state and local budget cuts. But more importantly, union members were angry at the lack of labor law reform and the tax increase on their health care benefits as part of the health care reform legislation. These two issues were a huge focus during the 2008 presidential campaign, and for good reason: they matter greatly to rank and file union members. How did this enthusiasm gap show? The number of union volunteers for the 2010 political campaign shrank considerably, and the state-by-state exit polls show union members voting for Democrats by a lesser margin than we’d traditionally expect. This has a big effect, as union members turn out to vote in numbers far greater than the general public, and they tend to voter overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.

Looking on the bright side

Very few people, even those working on races in Nevada, thought Harry Reid would win over Sharron Angle, but a huge mobilization by the labor movement really paid off there. Many people had no idea which way the tight races in California would go, and they overwhelmingly went Democratic. The labor movement also spent many resources defending seats up and down New England, which isn’t usually where defensive battles are located, but those races came in for Democrats. The Colorado Senate and the Minnesota Governor’s races were won by a thread. Some Democrats in competitive races actually campaigned using the health care bill as an issue platform and won. So while the House and many state legislatures turned overwhelmingly Republican, there were a few points of victory for the Democrats, and those will matter in the coming legislative battles.

Who showed up in this election?

Understandably, political pundits use the previous election cycle to make comparisons between election years. However, 2006 (the last midterm election) is not a truly representative year for comparison purposes. It was an unusual landslide for Democrats – and, notably, an example of labor successfully deploying a strategy of focusing on turning out “dropoff voters.”

Conventional political wisdom about midterm elections is that the voting population that turns out (shows up to the polls) is generally older, higher-income, whiter, and more Republican. Midterm elections are usually more difficult for Democratic candidates.

For example, in Ohio this November, 47.95 percent of eligible voters turned out, as opposed to 56.04 percent in 2006 and 69.79 percent in 2008. The data on who turned out to vote are not yet published by the Ohio Secretary of State, but it’s likely we’ll see that many Democrats stayed home.

According to Professor Michael McDonald of George Mason, who studies voter turnout and populations over the years, it looks like national turnout for the 2010 elections was 41.5 percent; by his estimates, there was 61.6 percent voter turnout in 2008 (turnout is always higher in a Presidential election year) and 40.4 percent in 2006. So overall there was an increase in turnout from the last midterm election, but in those years it’s more useful to look at specific states and local races, as these are the primary drivers of voter turnout.

CBS News conducted state-level, as well as national exit polls. This is helpful to look at for a more detailed look at what happened this past November. As an example, let’s look at the Ohio Governor’s race, where the Republican John Kasich defeated incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland.

From this income breakdown, it’s pretty clear that there is still a class nature to the electorate, and that consciousness draws working class people to the Democrats. But of people who answered the income question, only 45 percent of them made under $50k, indicating that the voters who turned out were disproportionately high-income. Exploring the class nature further, here are the results for race and income:

There’s still a 10-point difference between whites who make under $50k and those who make over $50k in terms of their vote in favor of the Republican, but they still went overwhelmingly for the Republican. For people of color voters income again matters in about the same proportion, but POC voters went overwhelmingly for the Democrat.

Also interesting is the breakdown by “ideology” – self-identification as liberal, moderate, or conservative. Counter to the media message that moderates went overwhelmingly Republican, in this race at least, self-identified moderates went for the Democratic candidate, indicating that this was not a referendum or a landslide for conservative ideology.

Young voters, 18 to 29 year-olds who helped catapult President Obama into office in 2008 made up an estimated 9 percent of voters this year, compared to 18 percent in 2008. About 58 percent of the youth vote this year favored Democratic candidates.

Black voter turnout also appeared to be lower during the midterm election. An estimated three percent drop in Black participation from 2008 to 2010. The exit poll found 8 percent of voters are Hispanic, with 66 percent voting Democratic.

In addition, men are voting more Republican, 55 percent compared to 43 for the Democrats. Among women, Democrats have a one point edge: 49 percent are voting for Democrats and 48 percent for Republicans. In 2008, more women voted Democratic. In 2002, women voted 49 percent Republican and 49 percent Democratic.

What’s the Republican strategy going forward?

The new Republican leadership, in their rush to represent the ruling class, have been very clear about their strategy. Their goals are to obstruct any Democratic legislation, no matter how conciliatory and misguidedly “bipartisan” it is, in order to claim that the Democrats aren’t cooperating with them and are “isolated from the people”. They will continue to lie about any legislation the Democrats have passed, which is working – a surprising number of people in this country believe that there are “death panels” included as part of the health care reform package. Lastly, and most importantly, they will oppose any and all attempts to tax the rich and regulate corporations. They won’t have nearly enough opposition from the Democrats on this point.

Immediately after the November elections, Senator Mitch McConnell announced the Republicans’ primary goal: to defeat Obama in 2012. Beyond that, it appears they would make the Obama administration a platform upon which to consolidate the white working-class vote in the interests of the ruling class for the foreseeable future. When responding to criticism about his statement of the Republicans’ goal, here’s what McConnell had to say:

“Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office, but the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things…We can hope the president will start listening to the electorate after Tuesday’s election. But we can’t plan on it.”

Other priorities the Republicans will likely focus on in the coming months include:

  • Since the 2010 Census was just conducted, states will be entering redistricting fights to redraw political boundary lines. Both parties will be fighting over these lines, but with a Republican majority in many State legislatures, they will have an upper hand to consolidate districts toward them for the next ten years;
  • Continue to undermine health care reform;
  • Move the message that Obama and the Democrats “aren’t listening to the people”, don’t understand populism, and are too far to the left;
  • Continue their war on public services and all non-military government spending;
  • Most importantly, move a pro-corporate legislative agenda with the message that the only solution to the jobs crisis is through more tax giveaways to and less regulation of corporations.

What do we as Socialists do?

Luckily, right wing talking points won’t reflect people’s experience. While this is not news to low-income people and people of color, we clearly and immediately need to connect the political opinions and actions of the white working class to their actual experience.

I would argue that our task is to fight the right-wing platform among those working class whites who are being misled. We can highlight the craziness of their platform as it relates to working people, by taking their plans to their logical conclusions and letting people decide. For example, take the right wing platform on social spending. Are sidewalks “socialist”? Then maybe Socialism isn’t such a bad idea.

We can imagine policy priorities that would immediately appeal to a large number of working people and would simultaneously highlight the identity and agenda of their opponents. For example, what if every corporation with a positive profit margin was required to create a quantity of new jobs for every percent of profit made? This is a clear benefit for working people, but would clearly be vehemently opposed by the ruling class and their Republican lackeys.

Just as important, we must demand that the Democrats fight for the actual solutions to right wing problems. Without that, they are undoubtedly going to move (even further) to the right.

These are just a few ideas, but undoubtedly we all need to pull together to fight during this next period.

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