The Political Consequences of the Great Recession

A voter leaves the Bells Elementary School polling place for Colleton County, Tuesday, November 4, 2014, in Ruffin, South Carolina.

Deep voter pessimism and a lack of an economic agenda from Democrats, not just structural obstacles, drove GOP gains in 2014.

American voters remain deeply pessimistic about their own economic prospects and those of the country as a whole and distrust all major institutions of government, including the president, Congress, and both major political parties. As a result, the 2014 elections mark the third consecutive midterm election in which voters turned against the incumbent party to flip partisan control of one branch of Congress. In this election cycle, the Republican Party successfully mobilized discontent with President Barack Obama and the state of the economy to pick up at least seven seats for a minimum 52-seat majority. Democratic-held seats that went to Republicans include Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia, with Louisiana going to a runoff. The GOP solidified its hold on the U.S. House of Representatives, picking up at least 14 more seats for a commanding 243-seat majority so far. It also added three more governorships to its ranks, for a total of 31 states with Republican governors.

The loss of Senate control was largely expected given the difficult task Democrats faced this year: In order to keep their majority in the Senate, they needed to hold seats in Republican-leaning states whose voting bases were more conservative, older, and less diverse. But the GOP’s hold on the Senate remains tenuous, with the party facing the prospect of defending 24 Senate seats versus 10 for the Democrats in the 2016 presidential election year. As longtime political journalist Ronald Brownstein notes, as of the 2014 results, neither party has successfully held control of the U.S. Senate for more than eight years since 1980—a trend Republicans will surely need to keep in mind as they organize their agenda going forward.

American politics has entered a long phase of electoral volatility and divided government, with Republicans holding distinct advantages in mobilizing their coalition in many statewide and local contests and Democrats having a seemingly firm grip on presidential politics. The longer-term demographic and geographic shifts that are rapidly changing American society have yet to coalesce into clear partisan majorities across multiple levels of government. Given the seemingly intractable economic difficulties facing American families, as well as voters’ distrust of the government’s ability to address these problems, this lack of strong partisan control of American politics means we should expect more wild shifts between election cycles and more divided government and gridlock.

Why did the Republicans do so well in 2014?

A combination of factors contributed to the GOP’s victories. First, incumbent parties nearly always lose seats in midterm elections, especially in the middle of a president’s second term. Second, the electoral map in 2014 manifestly favored the GOP from the start—as was long known. Five of the seven GOP gains came from states that voted for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) in 2012; Colorado and Iowa are the exceptions. Third, the Democrats suffered from poor turnout of their key supporters. Indeed, this drop-off has reached historic levels.

Finally, and critically, the 2014 national exit poll highlights the extent to which voter pessimism, fear, and anxieties about the economic future benefited Republicans despite the party’s abysmal ratings in Congress. Keeping in mind that no one exit poll explains voting trends that develop over time, it is notable that 65 percent of 2014 voters said the country was “seriously off on the wrong track,” and 69 percent of this bloc voted Republican. Seventy percent of voters rated the national economy as “not so good” or “poor,” and 64 percent of them voted Republican. Fifty-nine percent of 2014 voters believe economic conditions are “poor and staying the same” or “getting worse,” and more than 6 in 10 of these voters chose Republicans.

Despite clear signs of economic recovery in the aggregate, many American voters heading into the polls this year were not feeling improvements in terms of their own jobs, wages, and benefits and subsequently took it out in force against the president’s party. Absent any clear or far-reaching national agenda and message to address people’s real economic concerns about jobs, wages, and opportunity, the Democrats essentially ceded control of the national campaign, opting to try their luck with a series of localized and targeted campaigns. Outside of important victories on minimum-wage ballot initiatives in five states and paid sick days in Massachusetts, this strategy produced little in partisan terms for the Democrats. The GOP similarly lacked a unifying national economic agenda, but given the level of anxiety and anger among voters, it did not appear to play a determining factor in their victories. Both parties will need to do much more to prove they can effectively address voters’ overarching economic needs going into 2016.

Notably, neither the president himself nor his signature policies, such as the Affordable Care Act, appear to have played an outsized role in voting. Only one-third of midterm voters said that their vote was “to express opposition to Barack Obama,” while a plurality—45 percent—said President Obama was not a factor and around one-fifth—19 percent—said they voted to support him. In addition, 48 percent of voters said the 2010 health care bill “went too far,” and these voters overwhelmingly chose Republicans, while 46 percent said it “was about right” or “didn’t go far enough” to reform the health care system. Although President Obama served as a powerful symbol of GOP frustration and anger and was certainly a focus of GOP voter mobilization, the midterm itself was not determined primarily by reactions to him.

As both Democrats and Republicans go forward following these results, both parties and any future presidential candidates must find a compelling and convincing way to address voters’ ongoing pessimism about the future and the need for more widely shared—and felt—economic gains. Even with unified control of Congress, Republicans risk falling into a familiar pattern of pursuing legislative tangents and extremist tactics that must be addressed if they want to solidify gains going into 2016. Democrats need to find a way to ensure that the economic recovery since 2008 is reaching more people and that they have significant new ideas post-Obama to improve the lives and financial security of American families.

Who voted?

The voters who showed up in 2014 were far different from those who showed up in 2012 but similar to those who propelled the Republicans to their big victory in 2010. Here are the basic patterns.*

Age

The 2014 electorate was noticeably light on young voters, who have recently been a very good group for Democrats. About 13 percent of 2014 voters were 18 to 29 years of age, sharply down from their 19 percent share in 2012. This 6-percentage-point drop-off was identical to the drop-off in young voter representation from the 2008 to 2010 elections.

On the other end of the age distribution, seniors’ turnout was very strong. They were 22 percent of 2014 voters, up sharply from their 17 percent share in 2012 and even slightly higher than their 21 percent share in 2010. This is the highest share of seniors in the electorate since 1988.

Race

Voters in 2014 were 75 percent white and 25 percent minority. The minority figure is a decline of 3 percentage points from the 2012 level of 28 percent. Again, this decline is identical to the 3-point drop-off in minority representation between the 2008 and 2010 elections. It is worth noting that the minority drop-offs in both the 2010 and 2014 elections are larger than any drop-off recorded by the exit polls going back to the 1976–1978 period.

Relative to 2012, vote share declined by 1 point among blacks and 2 points among Latinos. Relative to 2010, vote share increased by 1 point among blacks and 1 point among Asians.

Gender

Voters in 2014 were 51 percent female, down 2 points from the 53 percent female share in 2012 and 1 point from the 52 percent share in 2010. The drop-off from 2012 to 2014 was equally distributed between unmarried and married women, down to 21 percent and 30 percent of the electorate, respectively.

In sum, this cycle saw a substantially older, whiter, and less-female electorate than in 2012. This national pattern replicated itself across most states, including the three purple states where the Democrats lost seats: Colorado, North Carolina, and Iowa. In Colorado, the minority vote share dropped 1 point; the youth vote share dropped 6 points; and the female vote share dropped 4 points. Remarkably, the latter shift made Colorado’s electorate male dominated in the 2014 election by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin.

In North Carolina, the minority vote share dropped 4 points relative to 2012, including a 2-point drop in the black vote; the youth vote share dropped 4 points; and the female vote share dropped 3 points. In Iowa, the drop-off was more modest: 1 point in the minority vote, 2 points in the youth vote, and 3 points in the female vote.

How did they vote?

The drop-off pattern summarized above was an important contributing factor to the GOP’s gains in the 2014 election but does not by itself explain what happened in this election. For that, we have to take a close look at how different groups voted in the election, not just at who showed up.

Age

Young people ages 18 to 29 supported Democrats in House elections by an 11-point margin in the 2014 election, 54 percent to 43 percent. This is actually quite similar to the youth-support rates of 55 percent to 42 percent for Democrats in the 2010 election; these rates bounced back to 60 percent to 38 percent in the 2012 election. It’s worth noting that the 2014 result for this group is contrary to much-fevered speculation in the media that the Millennial generation had suddenly shifted to a pro-GOP orientation.

Race

Congressional Democrats carried Hispanics 62 percent to 36 percent in 2014; this was actually better than their performance of 60 percent to 37 percent in 2010. Blacks supported the Democrats by essentially identical margins in both elections—89 percent to 10 percent in 2014 and 89 percent to 9 percent in 2010. Both of these figures went back up in 2012, especially for Latinos at 68 percent to 30 percent, so the 2014 figures represent significant drop-offs in support from 2012. It’s also worth noting that Asians saw a particularly large drop-off in support for House Democrats compared with either 2012 or 2010—58 percent to 40 percent in 2010 and 73 percent to 25 percent in 2012, but only 49 percent to 50 percent in 2014.

White voters once again came up big for the GOP in 2014. Their 22-point margin for the GOP—60 percent to 38 percent—was very similar to the white vote of 60 percent to 37 percent in 2010 and an improvement over their already impressive 20-point margin in 2012. These are historic levels. These recent margins compare to an 8-point margin for congressional Republicans in 2008 and a 4-point margin in 2006. These margins are also higher than two other very good Republican congressional years in the pre-2010 period: 19 points in 2002 and 16 points in 1994. The GOP’s 60 percent share of the white congressional vote in 2014 and 2010 is higher than that attained in either 2002 or 1994—or in any year prior to 2010 for which we have data.

White working class

Perhaps the most significant shift against the Democrats occurred among the white, noncollege—or working-class—voters. Congressional Democrats lost this group by a whopping 30 points in 2014—34 percent to 64 percent—essentially identical to their 2010 performance of 33 percent to 63 percent. However, the 30-point deficit for House Democrats in 2014 represents a significant slippage when measured against their 23-point deficit in 2012.

White college graduates

Democrats also did poorly among white college graduates, but not nearly as badly as they did among the white working class. House Democrats lost this group by 16 points in 2014—41 percent to 57 percent, slightly worse than their performance in 2012 and actually somewhat better than their 19-point deficit in 2010.

Gender

House Democrats carried women by 4 points in the 2014 election, 51 percent to 47 percent. This is actually an improvement relative to the 2010 margin of 48 percent to 49 percent, though still a significant falloff from their support for House Democrats in 2012—55 percent to 44 percent. Deficits among men, however, were actually higher—16 points—in the 2014 election than they were in the 2010 election—14 points.

The national pattern in trend support by group held across most states, as Democrats saw their support among key groups compressed relative to 2012 and gaping deficits among white working-class voters. In Colorado, which President Obama won by 5 points in 2012, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s deficit among white working-class voters ballooned to 27 points—34 percent to 61 percent—compared with President Obama’s more modest deficit of 10 points. In Iowa, which President Obama won by 6 points in 2012, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley’s deficit among white working-class voters was 14 points—41 percent to 55 percent, compared with a positive margin for President Obama of 2 points—50 percent to 48 percent. In North Carolina, which President Obama lost by 2 points in 2012, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan exactly duplicated his abysmal support level of 25 percent among white working-class voters in 2012.

What should Democrats and Republicans do next?

It should be clear to Democrats that the powerful Obama coalition amassed for 2008 and 2012 needs maintenance and upkeep. Base-voter enthusiasm from people of color, young people, and unmarried women will not automatically remain at the high levels of recent presidential elections. Consequently, diminished numbers of core voters and pre-Obama-level vote preferences make the white vote that much more of a challenge for Democrats. President Obama was able to win re-election with a historically low share of the white vote—39 percent—due the steady rise of black, Latino, and Asian voters, but the next Democratic candidate for president cannot count on these patterns holding in 2016. The challenge is even more acute in down-ballot races given the geographic concentration of base Democratic voters in more urbanized areas.

The path forward for Democrats seems straight. In order to maximize support among core constituencies and reach further into the Republican hold on white voters, they must develop and promote a sharp vision of economic equality and greater opportunity for those left out of the recovery. An agenda of job creation and investment; higher wages for workers; greater equality for women; college affordability and student-debt reduction; and strong family policies through paid leave, expanded child care support, and universal pre-K can attract a sizable chunk of the white working class, particularly among women and Millennials, and appeal to base voters who are economically pressed. A secondary but no less important focus on social equality and opportunity for all people will continue to appeal to more college-educated whites. Democrats must move forward with a confident vision of how government, despite people’s misgivings about it, can serve as a powerful force to lift people up and produce national prosperity by renewing the broad middle class and reducing the ranks of the working poor.

The path forward for Republicans is less clear. Facing significant demographic and geographic challenges in 2016, a repeat of the extremely conservative, negative midterm campaign will not suffice. The party must do more to attract nonwhite, younger, and more urban-based voters as the Republican National Committee identified after the 2012 defeat. In the interim, the party did little to attract these new voters and instead relied on its traditional strengths among older, more conservative, white voters to achieve congressional victories. These will not add up to a winning national strategy, however. With unified control of Congress, voters will rightly demand that the Republicans put forth some positive agendas for economic growth, jobs and wages, health care, and education. Yet it is unclear whether the internal ideological disputes within the party can be overcome over the next two years to put forth a new face of the party.

The smart ideas of the dissident “Reformicons” would be a good place to start for a GOP looking to expand its ranks. By taking the challenges of mobility, poverty, and growth seriously—and by putting conservative ideas for addressing these at the front of their agenda—Republicans could begin to convince a wider section of Americans that they are not just the party of the rich and big business. Again, this remains to be seen. The anti-government hostility and rote opposition to President Obama within the Republican Party is strong and will have to be resisted if the party wants to move forward to a position of genuine governing.

As with the 2010 elections, the 2014 midterms will soon be forgotten. Economic and security challenges will change over the next two years, and new political leaders and movements will wax and wane. But the fundamental strategic needs remain the same. Whichever party and candidates best understand and address these needs over the next two years will likely emerge victorious in 2016 and possibly set the stage for a more enduring political legacy.

Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at both The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. John Halpin is a Senior Fellow at the Center.

*All figures in this section are based on the authors’ analyses of national and state exit polls from 2008 to 2014.