Much hay has been made out of the election results. Was it a mandate for the Tea Party? Was it a mandate for Republicans in general? Was it merely a communication error (as Pelosi/Obama say)? Was it an apolitical protest of high employment?
As it is in every election, there are many answers because different voters have different reasons to vote.
Let's take unemployment in general off the table. Why? Contrary to popular belief, unemployment is a very weak indicator of election losses. Clinton in 1994 lost over 50 seats in 1994 with 6% unemployment, yet Reagan in 1986 gained 5 seats with a HIGHER unemployment rate. As you can see from the graph, no correlation between unemployment and House election losses. So what then?
We can get some kind of inkling interpreting exit polling data; this would seem to be the most accurate representation of why someone voted.
As you can see here from CNN's website, extensive polling was done across many demographics.
On p.2, we can discount the notion that this was a vote in favor of the Republican Party.
Polling shows that the favorable opinion of the Republican Party (42%) is nearly the same (but 1% lower) than the Democratic Party (at 43%). Unfavorable of the GOP (52%) is just 1% better than the Democrats (53%). Not only that, 23% of identified Republicans have an unfavorable view of the GOP. So this vote was NOT a vote for the GOP.
Well, how about the Tea Party directly? Was this a mandate for the Tea Party?
A little...but not really.
On p. 2-3 as well are opinions of the Tea Party. The most meaningful poll, on p.3 asks if the vote in the House was a vote for/against the Tea Party. A vote for the Tea Party got 22% of the vote, against got 17%...and Tea Party not a factor got 56%.
At least on the question of support for/against the Tea Party, the Tea Party is slightly favored; but 56% said the Tea Party was not even a factor. Not only that, 51% of Republicans (and 45% of Democrats) think the Tea Party was NOT a factor.
So what then?
CNN asks such a question: on p.3, "Most Important Issue Facing Country Today?"
A full 62% of respondents identify "Economy" as the most important issue. Of these, 54% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats.
Below, 89% think the economy is not good/poor.
In terms of the highest priority for Congress, the highest priority is Reducing the deficit (39%), then spending to create jobs (37%), then cutting taxes (19%). A full 30% that want to spend to create jobs are Republicans; 33% of those that want to reduce the deficit are Democrats; and 26% of those that want taxes cut as the HIGHEST PRIORITY...are Democrats.
As for who to blame, most people blame Wall St. (35%), followed by Bush (29%) and Obama (23%). Clearly Bush/Obama cleave by party; but there is broad agreement that Wall St. is to blame. And perhaps surprisingly, those that think it was Wall St. break down (56% Republican/42% Democrat). So clearly there is no broad consensus that Obama (or Bush) is to blame.
So what is the election really about?
The economy; and specifically spending to reduce unemployment and the deficit as equally important issues, with cutting taxes in 3rd place.
So how does that jive together? As you might expect: we need to spend to create jobs now, without spending too much money. And we absolutely have to deal with the deficit as a primary issue.
So this isn't really a mandate for/against any politician or political group; this is a vote on the state of the economy and voter's unhappiness with it. Wall St. get a majority of the blame, and most that think so are Republicans. Voters identify with the ISSUES the Tea Party support, but the Tea Party itself is not nearly as supported. In fact there is quite a lot of cross-over on issues between the parties, meaning party identification does not necessarily translate cleanly to a particular issue.
Clearly solving the problems we have with the economy is the number one issue in voter's minds, regardless (in spite of?) of politicians. Politicians of all stripes should recognize that Americans want solutions instead of assigning blame or crowing about their own personal glory on Tuesday.
Those Americans with their pesky common sense.