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STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS  — Democrats paid a heavy electoral penalty in 2010 for supporting Obama proposals such as healthcare reform and cap-and-trade environmental legislation, say three Stanford University political scientists. They estimate that the support cost Democrats 20 legislative seats and their majority control in the House of Representatives.

But Republicans should not take their resounding success in 2010 midterm elections as carte blanche to pursue the party’s agenda of cutting federal spending, warn David W. Brady, Morris P. Fiorina, and R. Douglas Rivers.

The period between November 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, and November 2010, when Republicans swept to the largest midterm election gains since 1938, taking control of the House by gaining 63 seats and adding six seats in the Senate was studied by Brady, the Bowen H. and Janice Arthur McCoy Professor of Political Science and Leadership Values at the Graduate School of Business, and two other senior fellows of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Their research paper, “The Road to (and from) the 2010 Elections,” was published in Hoover’s Policy Review journal.

“By pushing highly controversial legislation, the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives caused the party to lose significantly more seats than they would have from the poor economy alone,” concluded the trio. “The Democratic leadership appears to have turned a probably big loss into one of historic proportions.”

Typically, a sitting president’s party loses seats in midterm elections. Since World War II, the average loss for first-term Democratic presidents has been 30 seats. But why did political science forecasting models so badly under-predict Democrats’ seat losses in 2010?

The trio concluded that Democrats hurt themselves by pushing contentious issues such as Obama’s healthcare reforms and environmental proposals (A major healthcare bill was enacted in March 2010, while cap-and-trade legislation passed the House but stalled in the Senate). “By pursuing a policy agenda to the left of the electorate’s comfort zone, the president and the House leadership exacerbated the problems for Democrats from moderate to conservative districts,” the scholars wrote.

In the 48 legislative districts that John McCain carried in the 2008 presidential election and that had a Democratic representative, three-fourths of those Democrats lost in 2010. Eight of 15 who voted “no” on both healthcare and cap-and-trade legislation survived, while only three of 16 who voted “yes” on one or the other survived.  All seven who voted “yes” on both bills lost.

Still, Republicans should be cautious about their 2010 success, the authors warned.  In 1948 and 1996, Democratic presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton were both reelected two years after Republicans gained control of Congress. In the current Congress, Republicans should not assume widespread public support for the party’s agenda of spending cuts without new taxes, the scholars suggested. They cited internet polling on 16 federal programs including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense. For 15 of 16 programs, a large majority of Americans wanted spending to be increased or kept the same. Foreign aid was the only area where a majority wanted cuts.

“While the electorate in 2010 yelled a loud ‘no’ to the policies of the president and Democratic Congress, the negative verdict was by no means carte blanche for Republicans to carry out their own wish list,” concluded Brady, Fiorina, and Rivers.

In a hypothetical part of the study, the researchers erased the punitive effects of voting “yes” on the bills by setting all Democratic votes on healthcare and cap and trade at “no.”  Factoring out support for the bills, they concluded that Democrats would have saved the party 22 to 40 seats — probably enough to keep control of the House.

— Maria Shao

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. The Democrats Squandered Popular Support says Stanford’s Gary Segura
  2. Voting at the Extremes Costs U.S. Representatives Their Seats
  3. Marketing Obama’s Stimulus Package: It Depends

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