Misreading the Mid-Terms


The bare facts of the 2006 US mid-term elections are clear.

The House of Representatives returned to Democratic Party control the first time since 1994. Democrats narrowly gained control of the Senate by a 51-49 margin, and they also emerged with a majority of governorships, holding 28 of the 50 States.


If these simple facts are clear, their implications are far from self-evident. To begin, even before votes were cast, the storyline for the 2006 elections had largely been determined by the media: they were a referendum on Bush and the Iraq War.

While there is a measure of truth to this, pre-election polls were not quite so unequivocal. While many not all polls showed that Iraq was the ‘number one’ concern of voters, this was true only of about 30-35 per cent of Americans polled indicating that 65-70 per cent of voters thought some other issue was the most important. The massive (over 2000 sample) pre-election poll released by the non-partisan Pew Foundation the week before the election found Iraq as the most oft-cited ‘number one’ issue but by fewer than one-third (29 per cent) of voters. Just combining two other issues cited as the most important in that poll the economy (22 per cent) and health care (16 per cent) totaled 38 per cent of the electorate, or 9 points more than Iraq.

Beneath the surface of these polls, one found that the largest number of voters who said Iraq was the number-one issue were Democrats. And here’s the key point: as pre-election polls throughout 2006 indicated, over 90 per cent of Democrats were planning to vote Democratic regardless of the issue placed before them.

National exit-polling figures confirmed the Pew projections: over 90 per cent of self-identified Democrats voted Democratic and over 90 per cent of self-identified Republicans even those dissatisfied with Bush’s Iraq strategy voted overwhelmingly Republican. Party identification and not Iraq was, as usual, the key variable in 2006.

Before examining how self-identified Independent voters responded, what were some of the issues overlooked by media pundits?

In a very real sense, the Democrats should give ex-Congressman Mark Foley their ‘Man of the Year’ award. Just weeks before the elections, Foley, a Republican Congressman from Florida, was found to have sent sexually suggestive emails to teenage pages working in Congress. While the Foley Affair was given some media comment, it has generally been accorded a fairly secondary role in explaining Republican or Grand Old Party (GOP) losses.

However, polling suggests that its impact has been greatly understated.

The GOP had made substantial gains in late September/early October as a result of a concerted Bush foreign policy offensive including a constant flow of visits from foreign Heads of State. Just days prior to the breaking of the Foley story, the lead front-page article in the Wall Street Journal loudly proclaimed, ‘Bush Gets a Lift from Emphasis on Terror, Iraq.’ Just prior to the Foley Affair, a USA Today poll had the Republicans in a dead heat in the generic vote for Congress.

The Foley Affair and the resultant nasty infighting among the GOP leadership not only stalled the GOP’s foreign policy comeback which had been rallying Independent voters back to their side it also served to anger highly volatile (and moralistic) Independent voters to a degree that the GOP simply did not have time to recover in the final weeks of the campaign. This recovery was further undercut (and here Iraq is important) by the tragically high death toll of Americans in Iraq in October.

The powerful impact of the Foley Affair was dramatically reflected in national exit polls. Asked what issues were ‘extremely important’ in making their electoral decision, ‘corruption’ was cited most frequently, topping Iraq.

With almost all partisan voters supporting their own Party, it was the Independents who decided the outcome of the 2006 elections. This 20-30 per cent of the electorate exercises disproportionate power in American politics particularly when the two major Parties are roughly equal in terms of base vote. They are America’s swinging voters.

A survey which our firm did for the Machinists Union in five key, swing States in early September found that, among American swinging voters, the Republicans had a slight (about 5 percentage points) deficit on Iraq, but still had positive margins on handling terrorism and foreign policy in general. At the same time, among this critical group of swing voters, the Democrats enjoyed substantial advantages (30-40 points) on issues like health care, fighting the big utility companies, getting better drug coverage and lower pharmaceutical prices for senior citizens, protecting American jobs, and protecting the rights of American working people a pattern of Left/Right perceptions not unlike ALP/Coalition patterns in Australia.

Indeed, as the campaign entered its closing weeks, the Democratic advantage on these populist issues held firm. A late-October Newsweek poll showed that while the Democrats enjoyed a modest (3-5 point) margin on being best able to handle the situation in Iraq (although not terrorism or foreign policy in general) by contrast, they enjoyed a massive 27 point margin on ‘which Party was best in handling health care issues’ (53 versus 26 per cent).

The data from our Machinist Poll was widely disseminated and in many campaigns, Democratic candidates finally got the message. In a few progressive States (from New England to Washington and Oregon), in college towns, and in some heavily progressive urban areas, Democratic candidates took firm anti-war stances and were elected although not in Connecticut where Joe Lieberman, a supporter of the Bush war effort, was re-elected to the Senate as an Independent. (Lieberman, a lifelong Democrat who lost his Party’s nomination, will nonetheless caucus with the Democrats in the Senate.)

Elsewhere in the country, Democratic candidates made obligatory (and purposely vague) assertions about ‘the need to find a new direction’ in Iraq, while they simultaneously hammered home sharp, pointed and unambiguous messages on a wide range of populist economic issues.

Thanks to emo

The contest most widely cited was the successful campaign of Sherrod Brown whose campaign focused heavily on economic issues, including the massive loss of American jobs due to outsourcing and failed US trade policies. Brown easily defeated (by over 400,000 votes) the incumbent Republican Senator in Ohio a State whose loss had cost the Democrats the presidential elections in 2000 and 2004.

The Democrats, at long last, were using the issues and speaking the language that had made them the majority Party in the nation for over 50 years.

However, before Democrats leap too far off the ground in doing their high fives, they should bear a few hard facts in mind. First, despite massive Republican screw-ups Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, tax policies favouring the super rich, the outflow of American jobs, lobbying scandals, Foley, and so on the Democratic Party identification in America has actually declined since Bush came to office, as the following (6 November) Pew Poll shows:

Party Identification of Americans

November 2000

Republican: 29

Democrat: 36

Independent: 28

No Preference: 7

Democratic    Margin: +7

November 2006

Republican: 31

Democrat: 35

Independent: 29

No Preference:  3

Democratic    Margin: +4

Given the GOP’s failures and scandals, this is not flattering of the Democratic opposition which, as they look ahead to the 2008 presidential elections, is in no stronger a position than in 2000.

In 1946, the GOP mistakenly took their sweeping mid-term victory over the Democrats for both Houses of Congress as a clear indication that, with the recent death of the master politician, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the country would return to its pre-Depression Republican normalcy.

Harry Truman knew better.

He understood that the Democratic defeat of 1946 was a temporary setback due to short-term forces post-war inflation, labor conflicts in the immediately preceding year but that the fundamentals of American political power were basically unchanged. Truman’s successful 1948 presidential campaign recognised that the new Democratic majority in America was built upon the perception that the Party represented ordinary working people.

Today, the two most important reasons voters give for being Democrats (and voting Democratic) are still that the Democrats represent them on basic, day-to-day economic issues and that they’re the Party of ordinary working Americans.

If the Democratic Leadership is fooled into believing that 2006 was exclusively a foreign policy victory and that the road to the White House lies in focusing on those issues rather than the bread-and-butter economic issues, then, this year’s victory, like the GOP’s in 1946, may turn out to have negative consequences.

In short, if the Democrats start focusing on grabbing headlines like starting hearings on Iraq’s WMDs instead of focusing on policies to protect American jobs, stopping the increase in the cost of health insurance, etc, then they’ll blow their opportunity to use the 2006-2008 period to build Party identification and thereby shift the odds in their favour for the 2008 presidential election.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.