Mayhew lectures on mechanics of midterm elections

David Mayhew, professor of political science at Yale, lectured last Thursday on this month’s elections. Mayhew began his diagnosis by laying out his comparative perspective of the House versus Senate elections.

In the House, the 2010 election set the record for the biggest vote shift by percentage: The Democratic Party lost 60 seats across the country, Mayhew explained. At the time of the lecture, the Republicans had increased their share of the vote by 9.6 percent.

“There’s not much more the Republicans could have done, given the complexion of seats,” Mayhew said. “The Republicans aren’t going to win seats in Maryland or Hawaii.”

Mayhew noted that fewer votes in the southwest were lost by the Democratic Party, perhaps in part due to Arizona’s latest immigration law.

Mayhew explained that given the tenor of the times, the gains and losses of the Democratic Party can be explained: In 2006 and 2008, the elections were influenced by the war in Iraq and the economic crisis. The losses in 2010 can be attributed to the ongoing financial troubles.

Mayhew also mentioned that the loss of seats by the president’s party in a midterm election is fairly standard and happens about 93 percent of the time.

In the Senate, however, the Democratic Party retained the majority and lost only six seats. Mayhew noted that a party losing the House but retaining the Senate in a midterm election is highly unusual and hasn’t happened since 1913.

He did note that while Massachusetts was a victory for the Democrats, this election cycle was also lucky for the party because the “class” of senators elected in 2004, again up for reelection in this cycle, was abnormally popular, while some of their challengers were abnormally unpopular.

Senators up for reelection this year were originally elected in a time of war and before the economic crisis, making them more popular and giving the Democratic Party a lucky turn, Mayhew explained.

In contrast, some candidates the G.O.P. put forth this year, such as Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, were at times unusually unpopular, he said.

“[The Democratic Party’s] loss was, in seats, above average but again fairly standard,” Mayhew said.

In recent times, the president’s party has only retained seats in the Senate in 2002, which Mayhew attributed to the state of the country after 9/11 and previously in 1998, which Mayhew attributed to the impeachment process brought against former President Clinton.

“There was a lot of falling they could do,” Mayhew said in explaining the Democrats’ loss.

He called this year’s election “the classic blowback election” and explained that it may simply have been a reflection of the electorate’s lack of support for recent Democratic Party policy. “Perhaps the sausage-making has been messy these years,” he said.

Mayhew then lead a verbal “tour of blowback midterms in American History,” discussing the 1854 elections, when, after the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise, the electorate did not support the decision to expand slavery to the North West and voted as such.

He also cited the 1994 elections, which followed the formation of NAFTA and the failure of a health care reform bill pursued actively by the Clinton administration.

Mayhew offered an alternative possibility: that the disproportional loss of seats may be attributed to his ongoing theory of the electorate’s ideological diffraction of the House, the Senate and the White House.
He referenced the House election of 1998, which followed Clinton’s impeachment, and consequently turned many House Republicans against Clinton.

Mayhew compared the 1998 elections with today’s elections, citing the health reform process based largely in the House.

After the “what happened” and the “why” of elections past and present, Mayhew addressed the most important question: What does this mean for 2012?

This question Mayhew answered in four parts: First, “one election is not very predictive of the next,” he said.

Next, two thirds of presidential incumbents win.

Third, he said, “Obviously … there is nothing automatic in all that” and finally “there is simply a lot of luck [in winning a presidential election].”

Mayhew concuded his talk with advice for the president going forward. Mayhew said the president should “deal with major issues” such as debt and national jobs, be less partisan and “not let foreign policy get scary.”