A Guide to Understanding Angry Voters

Next up in my attempt to compare the 1994 and 2006 midterm elections is examining the major political issues in each election. In every election, there are always a few issues that get the most spotlight; these are the issues candidates will discuss in speech after speech and pundits will examine ad nauseam in an attempt to drive voters to the polls on Election Day. The most important policy issues in any given election arise from a combination of national conditions and party preferences.

First up is 1994. One of the big issues in this midterm election was government spending and growth, an issue that hugely benefited Republicans. During the Cold War, voters were much more likely to support increases in government spending as long as they were justified by a need to fight the Soviet Union. However, after the Soviet Union dissolved, the average citizen found the idea of increased government spending harder and harder to stomach. Many Americans concluded that if there was no foreign enemy to fight, there should be no need for an increase in the size of government or the size of the government’s budget. The Democrats were seen as the party of big government; they supported spending on welfare, social security, health care, and a range of other domestic programs. The Republicans were able to capitalize on this view of the Democrats to get them voted out of office. Republican challengers accused Democratic incumbents of being pro-big government and pro-spending while simultaneously promising lower taxes and large spending cuts. Angry and dissatisfied citizens clung to these promises with a vengeance and voted for Republicans 64% of the time.

Another issue that arose in 1994 was the inability of President Bill Clinton and the Democrats to follow through on the promises they made in 1992. With Democrats controlling the presidency and Congress, Americans had high expectations for what they would be able to accomplish. However, Republicans in the Senate used tactics like the filibuster to block bill after bill, preventing Democrats from achieving many of their legislative goals. The most famous case of this was the failure of Clinton and congressional Democrats to pass the health care reform that had been a major platform in the 1992 campaign. In 1994, Republicans were able to successfully portray the Democrats as supporters of a status quo that no longer benefited the average American. Republicans claimed Democrats had been in power too long and were no longer responsive to their constituents; the only way to make the Democrats listen was to vote them out of office. As evidenced by the results of the election, a majority of voters believed and agreed with the Republicans.

By far one of the most important issues in the 1994 election was the economy. Ironically, the economy was the issue that had carried Clinton and the Democrats to victory in 1992. At the time, unemployment levels and inflation rates were climbing and then-president George H. W. Bush was being blamed. In fact, Clinton was famous for saying “it’s the economy, stupid” on the campaign trail when asked why he thought he could defeat Bush. In 1994, however, the issue turned against the Democrats. The economy had grown in Clinton’s first two years in office, but the upper class was benefitting from this growth much more than the lower and middle classes. Corporate profits and the stock market were booming in 1994, but real wages and compensation for workers fell by 2.3% between March 1994 and March 1995. The middle class voters angry with the state of the economy turned to Republicans for help. The numbers support this hypothesis; in 1992, 79% of voters surveyed in the national exit poll thought the economy was in bad shape, and 62% of them voted for a Democrat for the House. In 1994, 57% of voters thought the economy was still in bad shape, and 62% of those constituents voted for a Republican. The state of the economy may have helped Clinton win in 1992, but it destroyed the Democrats in 1994.

And now on to 2006. One political issue highlighted in this election was corruption. In the months leading up to the 2006 midterm election, two big scandals hit the Republican party like a sledgehammer. The first scandal involved lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a Washington insider with ties to the Republican Party. Abramoff was accused of establishing a lobbying operation that gave gifts, trips, and perks that violated federal law to members of Congress. Implicated in this scandal were Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Republican Congressman Bob Ney; DeLay was forced to resign in April 2006 as a result. Though the average American didn’t know who Abramoff or DeLay were specifically, they knew the stench of corruption had attached itself to the Republican Party.

The second scandal hit in September of 2006. Congressman Mark Foley, a Republican from Florida, was accused of sending inappropriate emails to teenage boys who had served as congressional pages. Foley resigned as soon as the scandal went public. What made the situation worse was that the media soon discovered that Republican House leaders were made aware of Foley’s inappropriate emails in 2005 and chose not to act on the information. Voters started to think they couldn’t trust the Republicans. One Pew Research poll showed that 28% of Americans thought Republicans governed in an “honest and ethical way,” while 36% felt Democrats were more ethical. In addition, 45% of respondents thought Republicans were more influenced by lobbyists and special interests; the comparable figure for Democrats was 28%.

Another issue that worked against the Republicans was immigration. Immigration has always been a divisive issue for both parties, but it hurt the Republicans in 2006. Before the election, Bush voiced support for a more moderate immigration reform plan that would increase border security, but also give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. The plan was supported by many Democrats and some moderate Republicans, but it was despised by the far right. Some of these extremely conservative Republicans were angry enough about Bush’s stance on immigration that they chose not to vote in retaliation, a decision that helped Democrats in the end.

The biggest issue in the 2006 election was of course the Iraq war. When the war began in 2003, it had relatively strong public support because government officials claimed it was a matter of national security; they said that Saddam Hussein was hiding nuclear weapons in Iraq and that he provided support for al Qaeda. Three years later, public support for the war had plummeted; 55% of adults now thought the war in Iraq was a mistake. The reasons given by the administration for going to war turned out to be false and voters now saw the situation in Iraq as too costly. Though the war had received support from congressional Democrats when it began, Bush and the Republicans were largely blamed for the deteriorating state of the war in 2006. A majority of the voters angry about the situation in Iraq supported Democrats in the hopes that they could change the course of the war.

Evidence that the war was a damaging issue for the Republicans in 2006 can also be found when you look at the congressional and senate races where Republicans performed the worst. Several separate studies have found that in states and congressional districts with a higher number of citizens killed in Iraq, Republican candidates received a statistically significantly lower percentage of the vote. Voters in states and districts with a higher number of battle deaths were especially angry about the war in Iraq and they voted Republicans out of office to send a message.

The lesson I learned from this portion of my research was that for a party to win a significant number of seats in a midterm election, that party needs to find an issue (or issues) that makes voters extremely angry and can be blamed on the opposite party. Issues like the economy or the war in Iraq allow the minority party to inspire angry voters to go out and do something about their frustrations: vote the majority party out of power and change the direction of the country.