Debunking the Tea Party’s Election Night Message

Experts are predicting major Democrat losses in 2010’s midterm elections, and pundits are already saying that this year’s unusually competitive cycle is a referendum on the size and reach of government in a year dominated by Tea Party conservatives.

There is little doubt that the electoral groups that in 2008 embraced Barack Obama’s message of “hope, action and change” and brought Democratic control to Washington are less engaged and less likely to vote in a similar manner in 2010.

Yet many of the features of this year’s election, from the drop-off in voter turnout, to swings in political representation, and the uptick in activity by partisan idealists, are predictable outcomes that have distinguished midterm from presidential election cycles in recent years.

Midterm elections are always lower-turnout, more localized contests.  It would be a mistake to characterize the November 2nd results as a nationwide mandate or political realignment.  Nowhere is this more important than for what the media have identified as the top issue in this year’s election: the scope and size of government.

Tea Party candidates and their policy ideas are not representative of most Americans, just as midterm elections are not national plebiscites.  The Tea Party movement should be understood as a reflection of the discontent of its followers, primarily white, better-off, older, libertarian-leaning Republican voters, rather than as a new majority in the American electorate.  Polls find the Tea Party represents about 20 percent of likely 2010 voters, which is on par with support for Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential candidacy.

The anticipated Republican gains are part of the predictable rebalancing that occurs between presidential elections, rather than ideological shifts in the electorate.  Despite 2010’s political rhetoric, academic and media surveys from 2007 through today repeatedly find that most voters want government protection from economic hardship and continuity of core programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, in education and infrastructure spending.

Most Americans want government to work on their behalf, regardless of which party holds majority power.  When government is not seen as effective, then voters across the political spectrum react differently.  In 2010, many presidential-year voters will stay home.  At the same time, critics of incumbents and those in the minority are energized and stand to make electoral gains.  Such political transitions are normal.

Project Vote's new research memo explains why expected Republican gains in the 2010 midterm are neither unprecedented nor surprising.  Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that partisan gains in a midterm election are not a national referendum on the main issue in this election, the size and scope of government.

The memo’s key points include:

Voter turnout will fall, consistent with historical patterns.


  • The 2010 electorate reflects the predictable ebb and flow of voter turnout from a presidential to a midterm election.  Many of the new voters who helped elect Barack Obama, especially younger voters who are not yet habituated to voting, will not vote, and will drop off consistent with long-term trends.  Fewer get-out-the-vote efforts than in 2008, coupled with discouragement over federal efforts to stimulate the economy and create jobs, are additional factors pushing turnout rates downward.  In contrast, activism by a mobilized minority, anti-incumbent, right wing Tea Party campaigners, is ascendant.
  • Overall, voter turnout will likely drop by about 20 percent, from 62.2 percent of eligible voters in 2008, to between 40.5 and 42 percent in 2010.  Such a drop is consistent with the 1998, 2002 and 2006 midterms and is normal, as voter turnout routinely falls off in midterm elections.  This has been the pattern for 170 years.

Short-term electoral successes do not reflect long-term shifts in voter values.

  • In closely contested, lower-turnout elections, small shifts in voting behavior can produce out-sized political changes in electoral outcomes. Voter reaction to the Bush presidency in 2006 and 2008 created the opportunity for the Democrats to pick up seats in Republican-leaning districts.  In tough economic times that make it difficult for these vulnerable incumbents to prevail, the re-assertion of GOP control of these districts is a return to prior patterns of representation.
  • The Tea Party movement should be understood as a reflection of the discontent of its libertarian-leaning followers.  The policy priorities of many Tea Party supporters, including privatizing Social Security and ending minimum wage laws, for example, are not shared by the majority of voters.  Academic survey research and media polls have consistently found majorities of likely voters want government to competently provide core services.

Midterm and presidential elections and electorates differ.

  • Midterm elections consist of hundreds of lower turnout, individual, localized contests.  In the absence of presidential candidates and national campaign themes and messaging, turnout consistently declines in midterm elections.  As a result, they are weaker barometers of the views of the public at-large than higher-turnout presidential elections.

Majorities of Americans want effective government and support core programs.


  • Despite 2010’s anti-government rhetoric, polls from before the 2008 election through the present find majorities support core government programs and want government to intervene in crises and relieve resulting difficulties.  Polls show voters support a government role in retirement security, anti-poverty efforts, education, consumer protection, infrastructure spending and environmental protection.
  • These same polls also show voters voicing more disappointment and doubt than anger about the government’s management of the economy and job creation.  In short, more voters are frustrated that government is doing too little that is effective, not angry that government is doing too much.

Most midterm voters will go to the polls to vote in a local election for U.S. Representative or Senator, or for their governor or state assemblyman or city councilmember.  Issues and conditions specific to a state or congressional district will strongly shape the outcomes of most of these races.  Moreover, we can confidently predict that compared to 2008, turnout will dip, especially among younger voters and some minority groups.  This would happen with or without the so-called enthusiasm gap among different partisan groups.  Thus, midterm electorates are even less representative of the public at-large than voters in a presidential contest.

Tags: Tea Party, Project Vote, midterm elections, election day, Voter Turnout (all tags)


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