Two Democratic senators and one governor announced their retirements earlier this month, and days later, the smart money has Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat falling to the GOP for the first time in nearly 60 years. Suddenly, the Republicans are crowing and Democrats are trembling -- everyone says the Democratic Party is doomed in 2010.
What is the source of this breathless hysteria? Memories of the 1994 Republican midterm landslide. But everyone should take a deep breath: The 2010 midterms will not be a repeat of 1994. Why? Because almost everything we think we know about the 1994 election is wrong.
Let’s look at the 1994 election. How was the GOP able to pick up 52 House seats and eight Senate seats to take control of Congress for the first time in over four decades? This was the second year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and his signature initiative -- healthcare reform -- had just failed. Although economists insisted the recession was over, unemployment remained high and wages were stagnant.
According to received wisdom, the Contract with America -- the agenda the GOP ran on -- capitalized on widespread discontent with Clinton and the Democratic Party and articulated a conservative vision that resonated with Americans. Newt Gingrich, soon to be speaker of the House and the putative architect of the rout, boasted, “We have a clear mandate, and we intend to be revolutionaries.” Never mind that only 39% of voters showed up for the supposed referendum on the state of the nation.
In fact, the contract had almost no influence on the vote. In a poll conducted the week before the election by the New York Times and CBS News, 71% of voters said they had not even heard of it. Another 15% said the contract would have no influence on their vote. The contract inclined 5% of voters against Republican candidates and only 7% toward the GOP.
But the contract explanation persists, along with a corollary: that 1994 was the year of the “angry white man.” Democrats lost, according to this analysis, because they alienated economically anxious and culturally disaffected voters. The contract had targeted supporters of Ross Perot, the third-party candidate who shook up the presidential race in 1992: overwhelmingly male, independent, distrustful of government and angry about their declining economic and social status. As these populist white men went, so went Congress in 1994 -- to the GOP.
There are several problems with this claim. Although it’s true that many of the Perot voters who deserted the Democrats in 1994 fit the “angry white man” bill, many of the other men who voted don’t. Upper-income men were especially inclined to vote Republican, while lower- income men were not. Middle- income men fell in the middle. Conservative Southern men, regardless of income, were far more likely than non-Southern men to disapprove of Clinton and vote against Democrats because of it. The group registering the greatest shift from Democrats to Republicans? Upper-income women.
If the GOP landslide wasn’t due to Gingrich’s Contract with America, nor to the votes of disaffected, populist white men, what did happen in 1994? A different set of trends altogether: the unexpected rise of the Christian right and the move of white Southerners into the GOP.
The 1994 election was the Christian right’s national coming-out party. Eighty-seven percent of all House seats picked up by the GOP occurred in states with Christian-right influence within the GOP. In the most telling case, the Christian right in the state of Washington took out House Speaker Tom Foley. He had represented Washington for 30 years. It was the first time since the Civil War that a sitting speaker had been defeated.
In the past, white evangelicals voted at lower rates than all other white Americans. Not in 1994, thanks to savvy voter-education and get-out-the-vote campaigns conducted by groups such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America. In 1988, 61% of white evangelicals had voted; in 1994, 74% did. Christian conservatives made up 33% of all voters in 1994, compared with 18% in 1988.
It was also the year the South went solidly Republican. For the first time since Reconstruction, the majority of senators and representatives elected from the region were members of the GOP. Although anti-Clinton sentiment did burn hottest in the South, the collapse of the Southern Democratic Party had long been in the making. White Southerners began voting Republican in presidential elections in the 1960s, but they still voted Democratic in local and congressional elections.
Then, in the early 1990s, under court order and political pressure to comply with civil rights laws, states created majority-minority congressional districts. White Democratic officeholders, who had depended on black voters now no longer in their districts, confronted a whiter and more conservative electorate; they often succumbed to GOP candidates. The mobilization of evangelicals, more numerous in the South than in any other region, added to this white groundswell for the GOP.
It cannot be denied that 1994 holds uncanny parallels to today. Then, as now, a young, ambitious Democratic president faced an obstructionist Republican opposition and a divided party. Then, as now, a Democratic president took office in the midst of an economic crisis and staked his presidency on the promise to provide universal healthcare, a goal that had eluded Democrats for four decades. Then, as now, some Americans responded with free-floating rage.
Yet it’s essential to get history right, and what was most important about 1994 politically won’t make or break the 2010 elections. Congress changed hands in 1994 because the Christian right recruited new voters and white Southerners shifted en masse to the GOP.
Neither evangelicals nor white Southerners can swing this year’s election, because they are the Republican Party.
In November, the GOP needs to pick up 40 seats in the House and 11 in the Senate to win control of Congress. It needs to broaden its constituency significantly but nothing suggests there are sufficient numbers of additional voters who can be recruited to its cause.
But what about the “tea party” movement? Can’t it mobilize enough voters to enable the GOP to win control of Congress? Some much-touted polling seems to suggest so, but digging deeper into these surveys argues for skepticism. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showing the tea-party movement with a 41% favorability rating also tells us that 71% of those surveyed knew nothing at all, very little or just some about the tea-party movement. A Rasmussen poll showing that a tea-party candidate would come out ahead of a GOP candidate in a hypothetical three-way congressional race also tells us that the proportion of undecided voters equals tea-party supporters, and that the Democratic candidate tops a tea-party candidate by 13%.
Tea-party activists do share the ideological intensity of some GOP voters of 1994. But they are neither new voters, like 1994’s evangelicals, nor are they party switchers, like 1994’s white Southerners. There is no good evidence -- in surveys or reporting -- that they are anything other than disaffected conservatives who have previously voted Republican. At this moment, the odds are better that they’ll split the GOP than that they’ll sweep the Democrats out of power.
Historical patterns will allow the GOP to pick up seats this year. The out-of-power “base” will be more enthusiastic. The demographics of traditionally low-turnout midterms will favor the GOP. Democrats must defend more seats and will be held responsible for any problems in the country come election day. In 2010, Democrats will lose some seats, as have all but three incumbent parties in midterm elections since the New Deal. But the demographics are clear: 1994 won’t repeat itself.
It’s time to calm down.
Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and the author of “The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914" and “The Social History of the United States: The 1990s.”