Conservative Democrats bore the brunt of the losses yesterday in the Congressional races, with more than half of the Blue Dog seats ending up in GOP hands. Both seats lost in Colorado were Blue Dog seats.
As usual in midterm elections, a Democratic party failure to get its base to the polls was a key factor in its defeat.
The American political system is getting closer and closer to the model in which there are two very ideologically pure and almost equally represented political parties, the Democrats on the left, the Republicans on the right, representing districts that share their views. The number of conservative Democrats still left, and the number of liberal districts held by Republicans at the end of this election are similar.
In the U.S. Senate, despite losing many of moderates on both sides of the aisle in this election, the Democrats have more conservatives than the Republicans have moderates right now. This has the unfortunate implication that the Democrats in the Senate may be more likely to cave in on the issues that matter to them in negotiations than the Republicans.
Down at the grass roots, one of the most striking features of the 2010 election was the extreme gender bias and generation gap in voting behavior. Men really liked Republicans this cycle, while women really liked Democrats. Older people preferred Republicans, while younger people preferred Democrats. Exit polls showed male voters in the Governor's race with 44% favoring Hickenlooper, 12% Maes and 41% Tancredo, while women broke out 57% for Hickenlooper, 12% for Maes and 30% for Tancredo. In the Senate race, 44% of men backed Bennet and 54% backed Buck, while 56% of women backed Bennet and 40% backed Buck.
The nature of the gender bias doesn't make a lot of sense from a strictly rational policy perspective. The young surely have more to lose from big government budget deficits than the old, and the single biggest talking point of Tea Party Republicans this year was concern about the deficit. Also, the old have little reason from self-interest to support a political movement that wants to weaken Social Security and Medicare, positions about which Tea Party movement leaders were praticularly frank.
There likewise isn't a lot of reason to believe that women who are likely to vote have economic interests that are that different from men who are likely to vote. Often they are together in the same households.
The blatant misogyny of candidates like Ken Buck who carried the Tea Party banner, and general boorishness and conservative social values of both Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo in Colorado, which is typical of the movement as a whole, probably explains the differences in political outlook better. It is easy to see how this would push women away from the Republican party and Tea Party movement. A gross lack of compassion as a value held by the right in this election was also surely a factor.
It is a little harder to see, however, what the attaction of the movement is to men, and what Democrats could do to bring more men into the fold without alienating the women in its base.
Another striking aspect of this elections was the intensity with which places that disliked Democrats did so. Sixty-five percent of the people in Colorado live in counties where the leading candidates in the top of the ticket races were both Bennet and Hickenlooper, despite the fact that Bennet won less than half of the popular vote and defeated Buck by a fraction of a percentage point. Yet, their margin of support in favor of Bennet was matched by the strong opposition to Bennet in the counties with thirty-two percent of the people in Colorado in counties that opposed both Bennet and Mayor Hickenlooper. (Counties that supported Hickenlooper but opposed Bennet have just three percent of Colorado's population).
Counties that supported Republicans did so twice as intensely as those who supported Democrats. Of course, its really even more striking than that. A few areas of intense support for Democrats (Boulder and Denver, for example), balance out a few areas of intense support for Republicans (Douglas County and Colorado Springs, for example), with the first ring suburbs that contain the swing voters being decidely more lukewarm about both parties.
The historical urban-rural divide remains but the dividing line has extended from central cities to first ring suburbs, resort towns and rural areas with large Hispanic communities as well. Both Hickenlooper and Bennet won not only Denver and Boulder, but all of the first ring suburban counties around Denver and Boulder, all of the resort communities, and the better share of the San Luis Valley and Pueblo. Republican support was overhwelmingly rural, non-resort (an attitude that is still a part of Grand Junction, despite its metropolitan area status), exurban, or coming from the Colorado Springs area with its ties to religious conservatism, the defense industry, and the correctional system.
Colorado's most electorally successful politicians, like Ken Salazar and Governor Ritter, have conveyed a sense of connection with Colorado's rural way of life. Salazar played up his background in a farm community. Ritter shot long campaign ads featuring him driving across the plains in a pickup truck recounting his days as a pipe fitter.
There are policy disconnects in the geographic breakdown as well. Farm communities, that are more dependent upon immigrant labor than almost any other part of our economy, backed a candidate for Governor who has made a career of opposition to immigration. The farm communities are also an odd place for outrage over the state of the economy, because while most of the economy is in a horrible state, the farm economy of the United States is as prosperous as it has been for many years. Farm product prices are high. Crops yields have been reasonbly good. Farmers are having trouble finding workers, not experiencing intense unemployment. Colorado Springs, likewise, isn't particularly notable for its economic slump. Its core industries have not been lagging, and the city is in a growth phase.
A final piece of evidence supporting the conclusion that this election was a primal scream from the conservative base that was ideological and emotional, rather than based on policy, is that the Tea Party policies just didn't make any sense. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that you can't cut the deficit without raising taxes or cutting any of the main programs that account for government spending like defense, as Republicans promised in their "Contract With American" that was widely panned by policy wonks of both liberal and conservative persausions.
Democrats have a very hard time recognizing that elections are not just about which policy positions you prefer, and governing from elected office is not just about implementing the right policies. The public, and particularly unaffiliated voters who swing elections, want people they trust emotionally, and are remarkably oblivious to either the policy positions of candidates or the content of the policies that they implement in Washington or the state house.
The politically powerful part of the Republican narrative of the financial crisis was about bailouts as morally irresponible, not a empirically based discussion of whether they worked or whether they were effective.
In the same way, the debate about the death penalty is not really about whether the death penalty actually prevents crime, or whether it is cost effective, it is about securing retribution and just deserts for people who have done back things. Death penalty supporters don't want the establishment of our society charged with enforcing its moral commandments as expressed in criminal laws to come across as wimps. They want avenging angels, not expert criminology, even if expert criminology actuall works better.
Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats really do have a policy agenda with substance that has a reasonable chance of actually working. But, they have not sufficiently developed the narrative that frames that agenda in terms of moral values.
For example, despite the fact that Democrats put together a health care plan that would both provide access to health care for tens of millions of Americans, and do that in a way that would minimally involve government in either paying for or providing health care, the Republicans managed to turn health care issue into a debate about fear of bureaucracy and socialism and government scope, rather than about the moral imperative to provide health care for all that drove the legislation and the decidely non-socialist structure of the program. They did the right thing but they failed to communicate what they had done to the American people.
If Democrats want to do better, we need to get better at telling stories and connecting emotionally, and stop worrying so much about the details about how to get there that they teach in graduate school.