Friday, June 1, 2007

The 2006 election

I haven't inflicted any out-and-out political-science geekery on the readers in a while. So what better way to remedy that than linking to the lead article from the Spring 2007 Political Science Quarterly, Referendum: The 2006 Midterm Congressional Elections by Gary Jacobson?

As the title indicates, Jacobson is looking at the 2006 elections and the "message", if any, that voters were sending.
The primary source of the pro-Democratic tide in 2006 was public unhappiness with the Iraq War and its originator, George W. Bush. Figure 3 [p. 7 of the PDF document, p. 6 of the magazine] displays the trends in support for the war and approval of Bush’s job performance through October 2006. The two trends track one another closely and move in similar ways in response to events in Iraq. Cross-sectional analyses also find a close relationship between opinions on Bush and the war; respondents give consistent responses - approve of Bush and support the war, or disapprove of Bush and oppose the war - an average of 84 percent of the time in polls spanning this period. These opinions are far more tightly linked than they were for Bush’s predecessors in comparable situations - Harry Truman with the Korean War (60 percent consistent), and Lyndon Johnson with the VietnamWar (64 percent consistent). In any single survey, the direction of causality is ambiguous - prior attitudes toward Bush shape reactions to the war, assessments of the war shape evaluations of Bush - but there seems little doubt that growing disillusionment with the war has dragged down Bush’s approval ratings over time. (my emphasis)
He describes the Karl Rove's strategy of focusing on Terror in the 2006 election and demonizing Democrats as allies of The Terrorists. In later years, Republicans are likely to deny that they and their candidates ever did such a thing. It's important that the rest of us remember it:
Thus, during the summer, the administration orchestrated a coordinated, no-holds-barred counterattack against Democratic critics of Bush and the Iraq War. Taking advantage of the public’s attention to events commemorating the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Bush and his allies sought not only to reinforce the idea that the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism were one and the same, but also to elevate the conflict to the equivalent of World War II and the Cold War. The President drew cautionary parallels between Osama bin Laden’s anti-U.S. fulminations and Lenin’s What Is To Be Done and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, claiming the mantle of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as presidents who stood fast in the face of global threats. In addresses delivered around the same time, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld also variously quoted Roosevelt, took the fight against Nazism and fascism as precedent, and, more to the political point, charged that critics of the administration’s policies believed that "vicious extremists can be appeased" and that "retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone".

The central message was that Islamic jihadists were as profound a threat to the existence of the United States as the Axis powers and the Soviet Union had once been. Democrats [the charge went], by questioning the wisdom of the Iraq War or the administration’s conduct of the fight against terrorism more generally, revealed themselves as appeasers who were blind to the terrorist threat and, if given control of Congress, would put the security of the United States at grave risk. As Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee put it, "The president’s effort to keep Americans safe will grind to a halt with Democrats in control ..." Later in the campaign, Bush told a Republican rally that "however they put it, the Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: the terrorists win and American loses." The campaign was, in short, a concerted effort to use the specter of jihadist terrorism to frighten enough voters into voting Republican in 2006 to keep the Party in control of the House and Senate, replicating at the congressional level Bush’s successful strategy against John Kerry in 2004. (my emphasis)
He also gives a brief account of the Republican legislative agenda designed to put Democrats in the position of voting against bills that the administration would claim were essential in the fight against The Terrorists:
If anyone doubted the terrorism agenda’s electoral motivation, Republican leaders' comments after passage laid them to rest. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist: "Do [voters] want to be voting for a party that does unabashedly say, 'We’re going to have victory in this war on terrorism,' or a party that says, 'We’ve got to surrender?' House Speaker Dennis Hastert: Democrats "were so bent on protecting criminals ... they’re not allowing us to prosecute these people. The 130 most treacherous people probably in the world, and they want to ... release them out into the public eventually." (The Democrats who advocated surrender to terrorists or releasing them from custody naturally went unnamed, as they were wholly imaginary.)
In 2006, though, it wasn't enough to hold onto their Congressional majorities:
Moreover, surveys turned up little evidence that ordinary citizens were swayed by the administration’s rhetoric; it appears, at most, to have simply reinforced existing (highly partisan) views. In doing so, it may nonetheless have helped the Republican cause by reviving support among Republican voters who had been showing signs of disillusionment with the war and thus the President (see Figure 6 [p. 9 of the PDF document, p. 10 of the magazine]). Democrats and independents were a much harder sell; most of them had long since stopped believing what Bush and his allies were saying about the war and its justifications. The greatest obstacle to the administration’s attempt to change the subject, however, was the steady stream of bad news coming out of Iraq; during October, American battle deaths exceeded 100 for the first time since January 2005, and sectarian violence produced the highest Iraqi monthly civilian death toll recorded to that date.
This last point is important. I've argued before that the notion that says opposition to a war is a direct result of American casualties and basically nothing else, is a deeply flawed one. At best, it's misleading in the extreme. But Jacobson's observation about the news from Iraq keeping the issue on voters' minds focuses on a particular moment, and is a different matter than the argument that opposition to war is driven only by American casualties. He's saying that events near the time of the election kept the Iraq War much in the minds of the voters. He's not saying that they caused an upsurge in opposition to the war; that opposition had been long established, as he shows in other figures he cities.

Unfortunately, in his conclusion, Jacobson retreats to the safe position of High Broderism:
The consensus of postelection punditry that Democrats will succeed politically only if they pursue popular centrist policies, resisting any impulse toward a hard left turn, seems well founded. Among the mass public, self-described conservatives outnumber liberals by a wide margin, and moderates outnumber both. Elementary arithmetic makes it plain that Democrats will have to retain the support of the centrist, swing voters who were essential to their victory in 2006 if they are to have any chance of repeating it in 2008.
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