The 2010 midterm elections echoed James Carville’s famous message during the 1992 presidential election, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That message resonated in the political community because it simply and succinctly captured the significant and often determinative role that economic conditions play in elections. For politicians in the party in power, a sharp economic downturn can pose a nearly insurmountable barrier to reelection.
Barack Obama’s Presidential victory was secured after the market crash in September 2008. As the economy weighed heavily on voters’ minds, then-Senate Obama won the largest vote share for any Democratic Presidential candidate in 44 years. Two years later, the pendulum swung back as the Democratic Party lost seven seats in the U.S. Senate (six on election day, one in the Massachusetts special election), suffered its worst defeat in the House since 1946, and lost governorships in critical Rust Belt and Midwestern states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. While ideological opposition to the President’s agenda was instrumental in the formation of the Tea Party movement, pocketbook voting and sociotropic economic voting (voting based on an evaluation of general economic conditions) were central to the shift in the independent vote and lower turnout among core Democratic voter groups.
Political scientist Larry Bartels recently completed an exhaustive study of the 31 elections in OECD nations since the 2007 financial crisis. He found voters consistently voted out incumbent political parties, punishing politicians for an exogenous event, the global financial meltdown. I am focusing my research on how American voters reacted to the same economic events. I have identified 255 units of analysis*, the number of U.S. House seats defended by Democrats in November 2010. The seats were chosen because U.S. House races are typically less personalized than Senate races and are thus a more reliable indicator of retrospective evaluation voting. The core groups studied are those that comprise the Rising American Electorate (African-Americans, Hispanics, other minorities, voters ages 18-29, and unmarried women). Each of these groups was critical to President Obama’s 2008 election. This research will consider whether the Great Recession depressed turnout among these groups, which were disproportionately affected by the economic contraction.
To accomplish these research goals, I will construct a hypothetical panel study with a semi-structured interview schedule. This qualitative research will include questions relevant to the economy and the 2010 midterm election. I will also conduct a quantitative analysis of shifts in economic indicators like household income in the 255 surveyed districts. In the case of that variable, if there is a positive relationship between the size of the decline in household income and the size of the decline in Democratic vote share, that will bolster the pocketbook voting theoretical explanation.
*This counts the seat left vacant by Rep. Eric Massa, who resigned during his term.