Those seeking to explain the decisive Republicans victory in the midterm elections have essentially divided into two camps. The first says the Democrats were primarily the victims of a poor economy. The second says they were the victims of their own policies, and particularly of their centerpiece policy: their health care overhaul.
To be sure, there’s some overlap between these two positions. The first grants that the Democrats were held accountable because their policies failed to stimulate the economy. The second grants that the economy was a factor, especially in the sense that the Democrats failed to make economic growth their priority — instead passing a pork-filled and debt-laden “stimulus” and then moving on to create a new health care entitlement.
Still, the two sides have staked out rather distinct positions: The first says the election was mostly about the economy; the second says it was mostly about Obamacare. So, which is it? The evidence is overwhelming.
In swing districts, those ranging from +5 Democratic to +5 Republican (based on votes in the past three presidential elections), House incumbents who voted no on Obamacare won 20 of 23 races, by an average of 22 percentage points. House incumbents who voted yes on Obamacare won 10 of 26 races, not one of them by double-digits. These tallies include both parties, but isolating Democrats yields similar results.
In comparing the plights of pro- and anti-Obamacare Democrats, the key districts are those ranging from +5 Democratic to +15 Republican. Only two Democrats in more heavily Democratic-leaning districts opposed Obamacare, and only one Democrat in a more heavily Republican district supported it.
In the districts in question, the results are striking: Democrats who voted no on Obamacare won 8 races and lost 6, while Democrats who voted yes on Obamacare won 11 races and lost a whopping 29. On average, these anti-Obamacare Democrats ran in +6 GOP districts, while these pro-Obamacare Democrats ran in +3 GOP districts. So, in nearly identical — even slightly less-favorable — districts, Democrats who voted against Obamacare won reelection at more than twice the clip (57 to 28 percent) of those who voted for it.
These results strongly contradict what Bill Clinton told Democrats on Capitol Hill in the middle of the Obamacare debate: “I think it is good politics to pass this….The worst thing to do is nothing.”
This huge electoral disparity cannot be explained away by the economy — nor by these Democrats’ votes on the economic “stimulus,” which all but three of them supported.
Some commentators have noted that many anti-Obamacare Democrats lost, too. But nearly 80 percent of Democrats who lost despite voting against Obamacare ran in districts that were more than +15 Republican (districts where, aside from North Dakota’s Earl Pomeroy — who lost by 10 points — no Democrat dared even cast a pro-Obamacare vote). These Democrats were living on borrowed time.
Evidence supporting the notion that the Democrats were the victims of a bad economy isn’t similarly compelling — and some even cuts the other way: Exit polls show that 64 percent of voters blamed the economy on President Bush or Wall Street, while only 23 percent blamed President Obama. And among those who described the economy as “not good,” 52 percent voted Democratic, while only 45 percent voted Republican.
True, voters named the economy, not health care, as the most important issue facing the country. But this further highlights the tension between the Democrats and the American people — for the Democrats appeared to prioritize these issue in reverse order. Moreover, asking about the most important issue isn’t the same as asking about the most objectionable action. Exit polls didn’t ask voters to name the worst thing the Democrats have done — perhaps because the answer is obvious.
President Obama and this Congress spent most of their time from April 2009 through March 2010 on Obamacare. They passed it in clear defiance of popular will. It’s their signature piece of legislation. Every Republican voted against it. Most Republicans ran on repealing it. Republicans won in a landslide: The last time Republicans gained this many House seats while also regaining control of the chamber was the year of Babe Ruth’s birth, in the late-19th century.
It’s not that hard to connect the dots. This election wasn’t mostly about the economy. It was about voters emphatically rejecting unlimited government, federal arrogance, and fiscal irresponsibility — and, in particular, the 2,700-page mound of legislation that best embodies all three.
Jeffrey H. Anderson is a Pacific Research Institute senior fellow.