The 2010 elections provided observers with many lessons. Some look to strong Republican wins as a sign President Obama’s 2008 success was an aberration.
The 2010 elections provided observers with many lessons. Some look to strong Republican wins as a sign President Obama’s 2008 success was an aberration. Others point to the able crop of Republican candidates that emerged just two years after staggering electoral defeats that made the GOP look like a party on the verge of collapse. Still others suggest the economy did not (or could not) recover enough to make a positive electoral return on the Obama administration’s first two years. There is another, deeper, and more important story that emerges from the results of the 2010 elections: a voting public that is more volatile than ever.
From 1954 until 1980, for example, not once did either chamber of Congress change party control. But starting in the 1980s, everything changed. In the 15 elections since 1980, at least one chamber of Congress has changed party control seven times. Nearly every second election, at least one chamber puts a new majority in power. The public, it seems, likes change more than ever and that constitutes a lesson for the GOP wave that has swept into office. Change isn’t just the campaign mantra of Barack Obama anymore: it’s a ballot-box constant.
Elections would be easier to predict if candidates could glean what the public wants and give it to them. But when the public keeps moving the target, the political class has a very hard time. In the case of national elections, the voting public looks remarkably fickle: a Democratic landslide in 2008 followed immediately in 2010 by a massive repudiation of that mandate. Kansas voters are unpredictable, too, even if the 2010 elections represent a return to the default form of voting we expect in such a red state.
Republicans in Kansas stayed home in 2010, voting straight party in a once-in-many-generations show of solidarity with the party. But that one-election commitment is not a long-term guarantee. You would expect a state like Kansas to vote strongly for Republicans all the time, but the GOP had not swept all state constitutional offices and the state house since 1964. Democrats can win in Kansas, and that speaks to the volatility of the Kansas electorate. Since William Avery left office in 1967, Kansas has had five Democratic and only three Republican governors. Party loyalty is only so strong, and the right message or candidate can sway some Republicans to vote Democratic.
The real telling aspect of the Kansas electorate’s volatility, though, is the second-largest party identifcation in Kansas. I’m not talking about the Democrats. Unaffiliated voters make up the second largest voting bloc in Kansas, at 28 percent of registered voters. With the GOP at 44 percent and the Democrats third with 27 percent, party affiliation is not enough to win any statewide elections in this state. Republicans not only kept the base at home in 2010, but they attracted unaffiliated voters as well. Those same unaffiliated voters who chose Kathleen Sebelius, Paul Morrison and Joan Finney over Republican rivals in previous elections went with the GOP this time around.
This trend isn’t just important to get elected, either. There are serious lessons to learn for governing. Newly elected Republicans should not confuse winning with a mandate. President Obama would probably say the same thing. Just because you won with big numbers does not mean that the public supports everything you do and will not turn on you in two short years. Keeping your finger on the public pulse is the only way to ensure that support continues, and it can erode quickly.
In political science, we look at identification with political parties through the theory of dealignment: voters are not switching from one party to another, they are separating themselves from the parties entirely. Voters are picking and choosing between the two parties more than ever – 2010 was the straightest of straight-ticket votes in two generations. To secure and maintain a mandate, today’s candidate must constantly take the temperature of those mercurial unaffiliated voters. Without regular attention to them and their preferences, no candidate or party is secure.