The Economy and the Election

Some commenters on my earlier post on the election criticize my claim that the economy determined the outcome far more than the health care bill and Obama’s other left-wing policies. I don’t deny that these factors hurt the Democrats. But the economy mattered far more.

The standard economic model of midterm electoral outcomes developed by political scientist Douglas Hibbs (which has performed fairly well for many years) predicted a 45 seat Democratic loss in the House. As Kevin Drum emphasizes, the Democrats in fact did even worse than this, losing about 15 to 20 additional seats. Hibbs’ model takes account of the “exposure” of the majority party (the number of potentially vulnerable seats they held) and of income growth. But it doesn’t directly factor in unemployment, which is worse in this recession than in any other since World War II, except for that of the early 1980s. It’s possible that high unemployment (which was high even relative to the decline in income) helped account for some of those “extra” seats.

The health care bill and other instances of leftward deviation from the views of the political center probably also accounted for some of the residual. But one can’t assign the entire excess to that factor. There are a lot of other variables in play, including Obama’s seemingly aloof “elitist” governing style, left-wing voters who may have stayed home because they thought Obama was too moderate, frustration over the state of the war in Afghanistan, and so on. Moreover, as I noted in my last post, the minority of voters who cared intensely enough about health care to consider it the single most important issue facing the country actually broke in favor of the Democrats (albeit by a modest 53% margin). And the health care bill might have been more popular if better economic performance had increased the president’s popularity, which in turn might have led voters to regard his other policies more favorably.

Let’s assume, however, that the health care bill and other unpopular left-wing policies cost the Democrats 80% of those extra lost seats. It’s still less than 30% of the loss attributable to the economy. Furthermore, I think most liberal Democrats would have been happy to sacrifice twelve to fifteen House seats to achieve a long-cherished policy goal such as the health care bill. And most conservatives would have been equally willing to sacrifice the same number of Republican House seats to prevent it.