The war on women didn’t work, but the war on Obama sure did.
It’s been just over one week since the midterm elections, but the polls, the data and the commentary continue to make headlines. It was an important election for many reasons: First of all, it gave the Republicans control of the both the House and the Senate, including the largest Republican majority in the House since 1929. At the same time, voter turnout hit a new low, with the lowest turnout rate of any election cycle since World War II (DelReal). There were also several “firsts” this time around. Utah is sending Mia Love, the first black Republican woman to the House. (She’s also a first-generation American and a Mormon.) Iowa elected its first female senator, Joni Ernst, and New York is sending the youngest woman ever to Congress, 30-year-old Elise Stefanik (Zavadski). Yet despite all of these remarkable firsts for the American people, Tuesday, November 4 was still a very bad night for Democrats. Because hindsight is 20/20, this blog post will propose an explanation for how and why this happened and what it means for the future, particularly for the GOP.
What Worked (And What Didn’t)
The midterm elections were a classic example of what Jeffrey Alexander calls working the binaries. In The Performance of Politics, Alexander explains that campaign messaging centers around a system of binaries (i.e., civil vs. uncivil, principled vs. weak-willed, etc.). Candidates, he says, seek to work these binaries in their favor by associating themselves with the more favorable side of a particular binary and associating their opponents with the less favorable quality. It’s a plausible framework for analyzing campaign messages, especially if you take into account these most recent elections.
Although congressional campaigns are organized primarily at the state or district level, party knowledge is often shared thanks to a common ideology and powerful behind-the-scenes networks throughout the party. We saw examples of this in our discussions of Howard Dean and President Obama’s efforts to maintain campaign frameworks over time. In the midterm elections, this common knowledge resulted in similar strategies – and similar interaction with Alexander’s binaries – for candidates across the country. It was noticeably common for Democratic candidates to push women’s issues, while Republican candidates often linked their opponents with the increasingly unpopular President. The two ads embedded below are prime examples. In the first, Senator Kay Hagan accuses her Republican challenger Thom Tillis of failing the women of North Carolina, claiming that he voted the defund Planned Parenthood and cut access to birth control while he was speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives. In the second, Republican candidate Ed Gillespie accuses Senator Mark Warner of Virginia of being too closely aligned with President Obama, claiming that Warner votes with the President 97 percent of the time. Thom Tillis used this same argument – and almost a verbatim delivery – against Hagan.
Therefore, in the context of the 2014 midterm elections, the popular binaries to work went something like this: “My opponent supports President Obama, but I will stand up to him;” and “My opponent doesn’t support women’s needs, but I do.”
Now, the discussion becomes a matter of why. Why did the war on Obama prove so successful, yet the war on women virtually failed? Certainly, elections weren’t completely won or lost based on these binaries alone (even Alexander would say that the performance behind the binary matters immensely more than the binary itself), but the war on women is nothing new. In fact, it’s worked before (see my previous blog post on this). Alexander would probably argue that it has to do with the legitimacy and authenticity that the candidates conveyed in their messages. While I don’t think he’d be wrong, I’d argue that it also has a lot to do with deeply rooted public opinion.
Public opinion, from polls leading up to the election and exit polls on Election Day, reveals several telling things about this election. First of all, President Obama is extremely unpopular. As of this writing, 51 percent of voters do not approve of the job he’s doing in office. What’s more, 38 percent of voters strongly disapprove of him (“Daily”). Thus, the Republican strategy of linking opponents to the President played right into a deepening sense of public opinion. The Democrats’ war on women did not. Exit polls from Election Day show that 45 percent of voters – the largest segment of the poll – said that the economy was the most important issue in this election (Kirkland). For their binary, Democrats chose to focus on a specific issue, women’s reproductive rights, but it was the wrong issue. As Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told The Washington Post, “The Democrats need to expand the rifle-shot issues to an overall economic message,” (Tumulty). In this way, Republicans had the benefit of picking not just a single issue for their binary, but rather a man who is connected to every issue in the country.
In January, the Republican Congress will take over. The media are already asking and speculating about what President Obama can get done in the rest of his term. But aside from policy and governing, the Republican wave has some serious impacts for political communication, specifically with regards to the Tea Party.
Whether they won their elections or not, Tea Party candidates got on the map this cycle in a big way. You have to look no further than Virginia, where Dave Brat, an economics professor that the Tea Party supported, blindsided House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the primary and went on to win the general election last week (“Dave”). As we discussed with the Skocpol piece, the Tea Party’s primary concern is economic policy. As extreme as its platform is, the Tea Party has the advantage of promoting economic reform at a time when the economy has long been Americans’ primary concern. This new renown, paired with the Republicans’ soon-to-be power and the necessity to prioritize economic policies, the GOP as a whole will likely have no choice than to address the Tea Party and absorb it into its ranks somehow.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
“Daily Presidential Tracking Poll.” Rasmussen Reports. 13. Nov. 14. Web. 13 Nov. 14. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/obama_administration/daily_presidential_tracking_poll
“Dave Brat for Congress.” Dave Brat for Congress. Web. 13 Nov. 14. http://davebrat.com
DelReal, Jose A. “Voter turnout in 2014 was the lowest since WWII.” The Washington Post. 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/11/10/voter-turnout-in-2014-was-the-lowest-since-wwii/
Kirkland, Pamela. “The voters who fueled the ‘Republican wave’.” The Washington Post. 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/posttv/politics/the-voters-who-fueled-the-republican-wave/2014/11/05/9b9fd4a6-652b-11e4-ab86-46000e1d0035_video.html
Tumulty, Karen. “Republicans make inroads with women voters.” The Washington Post. 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 14. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/republicans-make-inroads-with-women-voters/2014/11/10/5bb42052-6695-11e4-836c-83bc4f26eb67_story.html
Zavadski, Katie. “11 Big Firsts From the 2014 Midterm Elections.” New York Magazine. 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/11/11-big-firsts-from-the-2014-midterm-elections.html
Williamson, Vanessa, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin. “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.” Perspectives on Politics 9.1 (2011): 25-43.