Last night, the Republicans made history in the House of Representatives. As of this writing, the GOP has been declared the winner in or is winning in 243 House districts. If this number holds, it would exceed any Republican majority since 1946.
The exit polls portray an electorate that is broadly dissatisfied with the performance of Barack Obama to date. 54% of voters say they disapprove of President Obama's job performance, and they broke 85-11 for the Republicans. The 45% who approve of Obama's job performance broke 85-13 for the Democrats. The economy dominated voter concerns, and those who were most concerned about the economy voted heavily Republican. Disapproval of Obama and dissatisfaction of the economy seem to have been linked, with a whopping 65% of voters saying that the stimulus bill either hurt the economy or did no good, and those voters overwhelmingly favored the Republican party.
Was the health care bill a factor? It is hard to say because, for some reason the exit pollsters asked a ridiculous question:
What Should Congress Do With New Health Care Law?
(a) Expand It (31%)
(b) Leave It As Is (16%)
(c) Repeal It (48%)
Ultimately, the problem is with (a). What does that mean? The imprecision of the question means our data on the health care bill is very limited. Still a preliminary analysis suggests that votes for health care in the Congress -- especially yea to nay votes -- hurt incumbent Democrats.
For all their broad nationwide gains, the Republican victory was not a ringing endorsement of the party, by any stretch. Opinions of the Republican party were slightly more unfavorable than opinions of the Democratic party. Thus, the GOP prevailed because 23% of voters with an unfavorable opinion of the GOP voted Republican anyway. That suggests that the difference was in intensity of feeling -- voters are mad at both parties, but madder at the Democrats.
What's more, the Republicans won largely by consolidating their own political turf. Of the Democratic-held districts where the Republicans have either won or were leading as of this writing, George W. Bush carried on average more than 55% of the vote.
That, I think, is the key to understanding the 2010 midterm election. This is not an endorsement of the Republican party, but much more of a rejection of the Democratic party, specifically the claims the Democrats have made since 1996 to be broad in its appeal and moderate in its policies. Democrats built a congressional majority in 2006 and 2008 by persuading Bush voters to cross the aisle to support them, with an implicit promise of bipartisanship and moderation. The party under Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi did not deliver on that promise -- and thus they lost the support of these Republican-leaning districts.
Ultimately, the long-term success of the Democratic party depends upon persuading the kinds of districts that are inclined to vote Republican. That was a big key to candidate Obama's success in 2008. He ran essentially without a resume and promised to pursue moderate, pragmatic policies. He hasn't done that, and so the center-right districts of the country tossed their Democratic members, and have thus reduced the Democrats to their smallest share in the House in 64 year. With the GOP dominance of state governments, Republicans will get to redraw many of the congressional district lines, and the pressure on the Democrats to be broad will increase, not decrease.
For the Republicans, tonight represents not so much a new governing majority but an opportunity to build a majority. Republicans should look very carefully at their problems in the Senate races, where gains of upwards of 9 look to have been reduced to just 6 or 7. Republicans need to recognize that while conservative principles can win in America, they require candidates with broad appeal. Clearly, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, and Christine O'Donnell are not these kinds of candidates. The goal of the Republican party in the next two years should be to articulate the conservative case with an eye to persuading as many voters as possible. After all, that is how change really happens in the United States -- it comes through building a broad political coalition that stretches all across the country. Conservative principles have won such broad mandates before -- in 1896 and 1900, in 1924, in 1980 and 1984 -- and that should be the goal of the Republican party moving forward.