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3 Questions: Charles Stewart reads the tea leaves

The head of MIT’s Department of Political Science analyzes Tuesday’s election results and sees reason for concern for Obama and the Democrats
Charles Stewart, the head of MIT’s Department of Political Science
Charles Stewart, the head of MIT’s Department of Political Science
Photo: Richard Howard

Tuesday’s slate of elections yielded more bad news for incumbents: Pennsylvania’s 30-year senator, Arlen Specter, was ousted in a Democratic primary by Rep. Joe Sestak, while centrist Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff by a challenger from the left, state Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter. Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Rand Paul, a Tea Party-approved candidate, routed the GOP establishment’s choice, Trey Grayson. With conservatives and progressives alike defeating moderate rivals, MIT News talked to Charles Stewart, the head of MIT’s Department of Political Science and an expert on elections and voting, to find out his read on the results.

Q. Many media stories about Tuesday’s elections have emphasized that the results represent a wave of “anti-incumbent sentiment.” Yet the candidates who won this week are all over the map, ideologically. So to what extent is it useful to think of these results as being some kind of larger anti-incumbent statement?

A. While there is some evidence of that, one of the big stories that’s yet to be entirely told is that a lot of the anti-incumbent vote is nonetheless picked up by incumbents themselves running against other incumbents. You do have Rand Paul in Kentucky, a guy who’s not currently a politician, but note that in a lot of these cases what we’re observing is career politicians battling against other incumbents. Politics is still a game played by a professional class. The anti-incumbent sentiment hasn’t translated uniformly into anti-politician sentiment yet, which I think will temper outcomes, and also potentially help to foster dissatisfaction down the road, because most of the people winning are not going to be anti-establishment.

I think the different ideological effects are very important. What we’re seeing on the left and the right is dissatisfaction coming from the most engaged, interested, and extreme people in the political spectrum. We’re certainly seeing that with Paul in Kentucky, and also in Arkansas, where Blanche Lincoln wasn’t left enough when it came to health-care reform. And perhaps that’s reflected in Pennsylvania, where the Democratic primary was a complicated thing, but buried in there is the question: Do Democrats want a moderate who might not be dedicated to the party, or do they want somebody who’s been a tried-and-true liberal? So we’re seeing a further pushing of elected politicians to the extremes of the political spectrum.

Q. Given that the Kentucky senate primary for the GOP was a blowout, where do moderate Republicans go from here? Are they going to keep backing more extreme candidates, look for third-party or independent candidates or seriously consider Democrats?

A. In every state it’s going to be slightly different, but it could be that the moderate Republicans have already left party in Kentucky, in which case they’re independents, and they’re just going to chose between the two candidates — there or anywhere else. One of the consequences of the 2008 election was a continuing of an ideological sorting of the two parties. There may just not be moderate Republicans any more, or there may just be fewer of them. So then the question becomes, where does the middle of the road go? And what research tells us is that in bad times you punish the party of the incumbent. And I’ve seen nothing to suggest that’s not the big story.

Q. Clearly the economy, and the employment picture specifically, are going to be critical factors in November. What else is going to be critical in this year’s election?

A. I think the political scientist in me just has to report and hammer on a non-obvious, enormously robust finding in our discipline, which is that in congressional races, the most important determinant of the outcome in races that involve incumbents — and that’s mostly what we have — is that if you have a challenger who has previously held office, then that incumbent is more likely to lose in November. Then you ask: When are those challengers chosen? Well, they’re chosen right now. So the thing to watch is, how good are the challengers, especially on the Republican side? And my informal reading of news reports suggests there are a lot of high-quality Republicans challengers who have prior electoral experience. And they will run really hard-fought campaigns and be well-funded because donors will regard them as credible candidates. In a sense it doesn’t matter what economy is going to be like specifically in November: The results are being hard-wired right now in terms of the choice of challengers against incumbents. You can predict outcomes in mid-term elections as a function of the economy in November, or the economy April, and the stronger predictor is the economy in April. And the mechanism is the choice of challengers to incumbents.

What you might be able to get on the margin in November is that if the economy is on an uptick and Obama does become a little more popular, there may be a little bit of a national swing back to the Democrats. But that’s going to be swamped by the appearance of really good Republican challengers against Democratic incumbents in swing districts.

Additionally, voters are enormously short-sighted. We’re seeing in public-opinion polls right now that large pluralities of voters are blaming the current recession on Obama. They’ve forgotten we had a president named Bush. They’ve forgotten that the downturn happened in the fall of 2008. All the bad things happening right now are being heaped on the Obama administration. So you have strong challengers coming out and you have the myopia of the electorate, and both of those are immovable objects, I think, electorally.

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