I thought I would blog about some interesting things about the election last week. Here is a link to the CNN.com exit polls that I will use for most of the blog post.
I'll begin by pointing out that if Republicans think that this election represents a coherent mandate for conservative retrenchment they are mistaken. The first bit of evidence against what I'll call the conservative "tsunami" interpretation of the election results is the turnout. It was low. In low turnout elections, the electorate is older, whiter and more male than in high turnout elections. That tends to favor conservatives right from the start. So rather than representing a shift of opinion the 2010 election represents a shift in attentiveness to the election. In other words, its not that more Americans agree with conservatives now. It's that more conservatives voted. Here is a link to the CNN.com exit poll from 2008. One thing that stands out is that in the 2008 election 44% of voters self identified as moderates. In 2010, moderates only made up 39% of the voters. In both elections most self identified moderates voted for Democrats. This begs the question of whether voters really wanted what the Tea Party and the Republicans were offering.
Now, what did the people who did vote really want? Did they - as the Republicans argue - vote in favor a Republican agenda of reversing what President Obama and the Democrats have done in the last two years? The answer is more complicated than Fox News would like to admit. On the one hand 53% of voters had an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party. 88% of that group voted for Republicans. On the other hand, 52% of voters had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party. 75% of that group voted for Democrats. So really the Republicans won not because people love them now but because more people were holding their nose and voting for them than were holding their nose and voting for the Democrats. That's not exactly a basis for a rousing mandate (see tables from: CNN.com 2010 Exit Poll).
What do 2010 voters want Congress to do and could Republicans possibly deliver it even if they had the kind of total control they had between 2000 and 2006? 19% think Congress should cut taxes. 39% think Congress should cut the deficit. And 37% think Congress should spend more to create more jobs. You might assume the people who want to spend for more jobs are all Democrats. But 30% of these people voted for Republicans. Cutting taxes and deficit reduction are clearly contradictory. When you throw in the significant number of Republican voters who want more spending and you have a tricky situation for the Republicans. What exactly are they going to propose? No matter what they do they risk alienating a significant portion of their vote (see table taken from CNN.com 2010 Exit Poll).
Now consider that the Republicans don't have control over legislation. What they do have is some control over the agenda in the House and a blocking minority in the Senate. If they really want to change things, they'll have to compromise with Democrats to do it. If they insist on the ideological purity espoused by the most vocal elements of the Tea Party set, the best they can hope for is to lock in place the policies Obama and the Democrats instituted in the last two years. Speaking as a Democrat, that's a deal I'd gladly take. It's at least as likely that the Republicans would win more support from working to compromise with the Democrats on some less contradictory options than trying to respond some incoherent "mandate" that they imagine they have. As a Democrat, I'd accept reasonable compromises with the Republicans on some major issues. It wouldn't make me vote for Republicans in 2012 but it would make me think people who did vote for Republicans weren't insane.