Some Thoughts on the Midterm Elections in the US

The Democrats clearly did terribly in the midterm elections on November 4.  Here are some thoughts on some (not all) of the factors behind this:

1)  Turnout is the “name of the game” in US elections, and the Democrats did badly at getting their normal supporters to go to the polls and vote.  Only an estimated 36% of those eligible to vote in the US actually voted this time, 11% below the 41% rate estimated for the 2010 midterms.  One traditionally thinks of elections as if voters go to the polls regardless, with the issue then being whether their choice will be candidate A or candidate B.  Under such circumstances, a successful campaign strategy is to focus on how best to convince those voters to vote for you rather than your opponent.  An appeal to the voters who are politically in the middle would then be, under such conditions, a good strategy.

But most Americans do not vote.  The winner is then the candidate most successful at convincing those who would vote for him or her, to actually take the trouble to vote.  The need is to get those who would vote for you to overcome the hurdles they must go through to cast their ballot.  They are more likely do this the more committed they are to the candidate and what he or she represents.

2)  Obama, and Democrats generally, did a poor job at making such an appeal.  Possibly the clearest example of this was Obama’s decision (under pressure from several Democratic candidates for the Senate, most of whom then lost) to postpone any announcement of executive actions he would take on immigration reform – actions which would not require new legislation.  Obama publicly promised to make such an announcement this past summer, but then decided to postpone any such announcement until after the election.  This then led to strong criticism by many Hispanics, including heckling at some of his speeches, and a reduction in support from Hispanics.  This was manifested in part by a reduced share of the Hispanic vote going to Democrats, but even more in a reduction in Hispanics going to the polls at all.  The result will now be a Senate more averse to immigration reform than before.  But the reaction by Hispanics is understandable.

The strategy did not pick up many, if any, moderate votes.  But it did lead to a key constituency to be less interested in overcoming the hurdles that exist in the US (and increasingly exist:  see below) to go out and vote.

One can point to issues that have disappointed other key constituencies as well. Significant groups of Obama supporters were disappointed by his (so far) non-decision on the Keystone pipeline (he has not approved it, but nor has he decided against it); his extension of the Bush tax cuts for all but the extremely rich (which has weakened the fiscal accounts, with this then strengthening those opposed to the government spending that would have accelerated the recovery and reduced unemployment); his failure to prosecute aggressively those on Wall Street who through fraud sold mortgage-backed securities that misrepresented the financial capacity of many of those receiving such mortgages, which led directly to the 2008 financial crisis; the support provided to those Wall Street banks and other financial institutions then to rescue them from this crisis, while home-owners who were sold such mortgages received only limited, and in the end ineffectual, help; and more.

I would not argue that these positions did not reflect Obama’s genuine beliefs.  While conservative pundits have labeled him a far-left socialist, or worse, Obama has in fact governed from the middle.  But such positions then had the effect of leading many with more liberal views not to see a reason to go to the polls.

Obamacare provides a further example.  It has successfully reduced the number of uninsured in America by over ten million so far, and has been the most important health care reform in the US since Medicare was passed in 1965.  But it has been criticized by those on the left as an overly complex program.  As they note, it was a plan first conceived by the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1989.  Republicans in Congress in 1993 then championed this plan, with its individual mandate, as their counter-proposal to the health reform plan of the White House task force led by Hillary Clinton.  Many Obama supporters would have preferred the simpler approach of a health care plan built on extending Medicare to the full population (a single-payer system).  The problems with the launch of the Obamacare exchanges in October 2013 affirmed for many that such a simpler plan would have been better.

The Obamacare system that works through private insurance companies may have been necessary politically, to get any health care reform passed through congress.  It was politically in the middle, derived from a plan first pushed by Republicans.  But it disappointed many liberals as overly complex and more costly than an extension of Medicare to all would have been, while picking up few votes from voters in the middle.

3)  Voter suppression works, and can be decisive in close elections.  A wave of more restrictive voting measures were enacted following the 2010 elections, in those states where Republicans took (or kept) control of both the governorship and both houses of their legislatures.  Courts have ruled against some of the new voting restrictions, while others were merely postponed.  Such new measures, which vary by state, were in place in 21 states for the first time in a midterm election in 2014.

The measures all act to increase the hurdles to voting.  They can have a particularly discriminatory impact on the poor and many minorities.  Voter ID requirements may not matter much to someone with a car and driver’s license, but if you are poor and do not own a car, and hence have had no need for a driver’s license, the burden can be significant.  And the intent of such laws was made especially clear in Texas, where a license to carry a handgun is counted as a valid ID for voting, while a state-issued photo ID at the University of Texas for an in-state student is not.

It is difficult to impossible to estimate the impact that raising the hurdles to voting has had on voter participation.  A recent study by the GAO estimated that in two states examined (Kansas and Tennessee), the result may have been a reduction in voter participation of about 2 to 3%.  If all this impact is focussed on one side of potential voters (e.g. poor who would vote for Democrats) in an otherwise evenly divided state, the impact would be to reduce the votes on one side by 4 to 6%.  This is huge, and could be decisive in many contests.

Two prominent states that introduced significant new voting hurdles since 2010 were North Carolina and Florida.  Republican Thom Tillis, who as speaker of the state House of Representatives pushed through the new voting measures, beat Senate incumbent Kay Hagan by a narrow 49.0% to 47.3%.  He may well owe his win to the new hurdles.  And Republican Governor Rick Scott of Florida signed into law new voting restrictions as well as implemented executive actions that made voting more difficult.  He won over his challenger (former governor Charlie Crist) by a margin of just 48.2% to 47.1%.

While it is impossible to say with certainty that the new hurdles were the deciding factors in these races, they figures are so close that they very well could have been.

4)  Obamacare has succeeded in its primary objective of making it possible for more Americans to obtain health insurance.   But the politics of whether such progress will translate into net votes in favor of politicians who supported it are not straightforward.

In the US, before Obamacare, roughly 85% of the population (using round numbers, but sufficient for the illustrative purposes here) had health insurance, whether through government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, or through private insurance normally obtained via your employer.  About 15% of the population had no such health insurance cover, and the primary aim of Obamacare was to make it possible for this 15% to obtain health insurance coverage.

While making it possible for this 15% to obtain health insurance is an indisputable gain to the 15%, they of course only make up 15% of the total.  The other 85% already have health insurance, and health insurance coverage is of course important to all of us.  But with the complexities of the Obamacare reforms, the 85% who already with health insurance cover can understandably be worried whether Obamacare might have an adverse impact on them.  It won’t, and there will indeed be gains for most of them (health insurance policies must now meet certain minimum standards, including the provision of coverage for routine annual check-ups without a deductible, coverage for adult children up to the age of 26, an end to denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions, and other measures).  Only a relative few of the very rich will now pay more in taxes to cover in part the cost of subsidies that will make it possible for those of lower income to afford coverage.

But with the complexities of the Obamacare reforms, plus the anti-Obamacare campaigns by certain political groups (such as a number supported by the Koch brothers), as well as by Fox television and a number of radio talk programs (such as Rush Limbaugh), it is not surprising that people within the 85% may worry.  Access to health care is important to all of us, and if Obamacare would, in some unclear fashion but based on what critics are asserting, lead to loss of coverage within the 85%, one can understand the concerns.  And with the 85% far outnumbering the 15%, it would not take a very high share of the 85% to oppose Obamacare, under the mistaken belief they will be harmed in some unknown way, to offset the positive reactions among the 15% now able to obtain affordable health care.

There can be a similar political arithmetic in other areas as well.  Falling unemployment will matter a good deal to those now able to get jobs, but they constitute a relatively small share of the labor force.  After all, an unemployment rate below 6% (as it is now) means that more than 94% have jobs.  And if those with jobs are told that the measures being taken to spur growth will have an adverse effect on them (such as the assertions, completed unsupported by any facts on what has happened to inflation thus far, that the Fed’s monetary policy will lead to hyperinflation), the political gains from bringing down the unemployment rate may be more than offset by the worries of the 94%.


There were many reasons for the poor showing of the Democrats in the November 4 midterms.  The factors discussed above are only a few, and perhaps not even the most important ones.  But they did contribute.