New Congress: Middle Ground or Battleground?
Were the mid-term election results surprising?
Vincent Hutchings: No, for some reasons that are institutional, and some that are particular to 2014.
Institutionally, as a historical matter, the president’s party has lost seats in every mid-term election since the Civil War with three notable exceptions:
The first came in 1934, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. FDR, of course, was elected president in 1932, and this solidified the New Deal, as his party—the Democrats—picked up seats in 1934.
The second came in 1998, when Bill Clinton was under the specter of impeachment. He was impeached, but the impeachment effort generated national coverage and a backlash against the Republican Party.
The third exception was 2002, after the 9/11 attacks.
The issues in these elections nationalized the congressional elections. That’s what it takes to overturn this historical trend. Without that unifying effort, one expects the president’s party will lose seats. It’s just a question of how many.
For this election, Obama’s unpopularity was also a factor. President Obama followed George W. Bush, who was the most controversial president we’ve ever had until Barack Obama came along. Obama has surpassed him. There are a lot of people who strongly dislike the president or his policies. Given this and the mid-term election history, the outcome verged on a foregone conclusion.
What effect will this election have on governance: a new direction, or two years of a “do-nothing” Washington?
VH: Because parties are more polarized—not the electorate but the government—leaders in the Republican and Democratic parties are more ideologically at odds than they have been in previous eras. In the not-too-distant past, there were liberal or moderate Republicans and conservative or at least moderate Democrats. There are no liberal Republicans anymore. That’s almost an oxymoron.
The point is that the ideological and the partisan divide, which didn’t map onto each other in previous eras, are almost interchangeable now. Democrats haven’t moved as far to the left as Republicans have moved to the right, but Southern Democrats’ demise has meant moderate to conservative Democrats are all but extinct.
For these reasons, I think we’re in for a lot of gridlock in the immediate future.
What explains the historical precedent for Congress to turn against the president’s party in a mid-term election?
VH: We don’t know exactly. For a while, there was a theory that there were more White House partisans during a victorious presidential run, and that these voters stayed home for mid-term elections. That, the theory went, was why the president’s party lost. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. The partisan composition of the electorate in the mid-term is about what it is during a presidential election. It’s smaller, but it’s not like there are substantially more White House opponents out there.
In 2014, one idiosyncracy was the weak Latino turnout—and Latinos are traditionally a Democratic group. That might have been a protest against Obama’s inability to pass or implement some kind of comprehensive immigration reform through administrative, executive action. And it might help explain 2014, but it doesn’t explain other elections.
What effects will the election have on foreign policy?
VH: Probably surprisingly few. For example, a recent effort to rescue hostages in the Middle East was not successful, but the Republicans did not really criticize the effort. Republicans tend to be less critical of actions Obama has taken internationally than actions he’s taken domestically.
The Republicans agree with Obama on many issues. Obama has an image as a traditional, Democratic liberal; it’s in Republicans’ political interest to propagate that image because it can help them win elections. It’s perfectly rational, but when you actually examine the policy preferences of the Obama administration, such as free trade, the drone policy, or policies that authorize use of lethal force—including against American citizens—it goes further in terms of its conservative rationale than anything Bush and Cheney pushed for.
There’s more a meeting of the minds between Congress and Obama than one would think judging by the intensity of the rhetoric of those two parties.
Is it going to be a challenge for Republicans to govern as a unified party as candidates stake out positions for 2016? Is it likely to accelerate announcements of Democrats’ presidential candidacies?
VH: Some of that might happen—in the Senate more than the House. In the House, in some ways, Speaker Boehner’s hand has been strengthened because there are more Republicans. He doesn’t have to rely on the Tea Party faction as much because his majority is bigger. Plus, many of the new House Republicans are establishment Republicans, not Tea Party-type Republicans, so House Republicans are in a position to put forth a unified message.
That’s less true in the Senate, in part because of the way the Senate is structured and in part because many 2016 Republican presidential aspirants are in the Senate, like Rand Paul [Kentucky], Ted Cruz [Texas], and Marco Rubio [Florida]. Someone like Senator Cruz has an incentive to pursue actions that distinguish him from the pack, and to align himself with the concerns of the far-right Republican party because it will be consequential in the primaries. For these reasons, the Senate is going to be more difficult to unify than the House.
Will it accelerate Democratic announcements? Probably not. The leading candidate is, of course, Hillary Clinton, but I suspect she feels she may have declared too early last time, and then tried to create this air of inevitability that provided a big target for someone like Obama. There’s a reason why she’s been coy and reticent—“Well, maybe I’ll run, maybe I won’t”—because she doesn’t want to provide an easy target. The calendar is not going to change as a consequence of this change in the Congress. And because Hillary Clinton is the presumptive favorite, I think other potential democratic nominees—former Senator [Jim] Webb [Virginia] and perhaps Governor [Andrew] Cuomo [New York], want to wait to see what Hillary does first.
I think the Hillary factor is far more influential with respect to timing on the part of the Democrats; the Hillary factor is more consequential than the composition of the Congress.
Your research looks at the dynamic of race and politics. In that light, are there any conclusions you would draw about this election?
VH: Whenever I talk about national politics in general I try to drive home the point that there’s a general understanding that African Americans and Latinos tend to be Democrats. But there’s not a good appreciation for the fact that whites tend to be Republican. The American party system is remarkably racialized. Knowing the racial or ethnic background of someone gives you a very good understanding or indicator of which party they support. And that’s because the parties—the political parties writ large—represent interest groups that are organized or unorganized in society. And because we have such a racially divided society, the parties reflect that. It is important to highlight that partisan politics in the U.S. increasingly and invariably, if, perhaps, less vocally, reflect racial and ethnic politics as well.
Vincent Hutchings is a professor of political science and a research professor at the Institute for Social Research. He was a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar (2000-2002), has received multiple grants from the National Science Foundation, and is currently the University of Michigan principal investigator for the American National Election Study.
His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, or of the University of Michigan.