Q&A: Professor Kyle Dropp
We sat down with government professor Kyle Dropp, who studies elections and voter turnout, to chat about midterm elections.
Why do you think Republicans gained control of the Senate in this election?
KD: I’d caution against making a blanket conclusion about the direction or sentiment of the country from the results. The exit polls that were conducted suggest that voters in general were angry and worried. Eight in 10 said they were very or somewhat worried about the state of the economy, seven in 10 said they were very or somewhat worried about an imminent terrorist attack and only two in 10 said they trusted the government most of the time. Two in 10 voters said that their vote was to express support for Obama, but a larger number, one in three, said their vote was to express opposition to Obama. One quarter of voters who voted for the Republicans, according to the exit polls, had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party, so both parties are not held in high esteem.
It’s worth noting that this tends to be a trend — voters tend to be really dissatisfied with their incumbents and want to shake up government. Voters were dissatisfied with them in 2006, when Democrats gained control of the Senate from the Republicans, and in 2008, when Democrats picked up the presidency with Barack Obama winning over John McCain. In 2010 Republicans took control of the House. Now in 2014 Republicans took control of the Senate, so we do see lots of changes in opinion.
There are also some structural reasons why we observed the Senate gains by Republicans. Each cycle, approximately one in three Senators are up, and sometimes the environment is more or less favorable for the Republicans or the Democrats. More than twice as many Democrats were up for re-election this time than were Republicans, and many of those Democrats were either in states that Mitt Romney had won in 2012 or they had been swept in during the 2008 election when Obama won, which was an election that was very favorable to Democrats.
Moving forward, in 2016 it appears that Democrats have a very favorable map. More than twice as many Republicans are up for reelection than are Democrats, and many of these Republicans are in competitive, battleground-type states and entered the Senate in 2010, which was a very good year for Republicans, so they’ll be up for re-election under quite different circumstances. On presidential cycles, when you tend to have higher turnout among groups that disproportionately lean left or lean Democrat, younger voters and nonwhite voters tend to show up in general.
What are the implications of this election for the remainder of the Obama presidency? For the 2016 presidential race?
KD: In terms of thinking about how productive or unproductive the sessions might be going forward, we have a baseline that’s quite low, and so the Republicans will transition in the Senate from a party in the minority to a party in the majority, and when they have power they’ll be expected to put forward an agenda. As far as I can tell, their agenda will include priorities that Americans seem to care about, priorities like job creation, deficit reduction and perhaps energy policy. You’re likely going to see the Senate push some of these policies forward.
There’s also been talk between President Obama and Republicans about issues on which they can find agreement. With that in mind, President Obama and Congress have differences of opinion on the proper role of government, and it remains to be seen if they can come together on policies like that and move forward.
What does this election mean for congressional productivity?
KD: I think having this setup where the Democrats control the executive branch with Obama as leader will heighten the contrast between the legislative branch and the executive branch. The legislative branch may pass more bills because the House and Senate are controlled by the same party, and so they may be more productive in terms of that, but President Obama may veto more bills. In terms of the number of bills that become law, there’s not a clear prediction of whether you’ll have heightened productivity or you’ll have the low productivity levels that you have now. You’ll probably see a clear difference in the ability of the president to get his appointees into office. The president appoints individuals for the federal judiciary and they must be approved by the Senate. With a Democratic-controlled Senate that changed rules such that a simple majority could be used to approve judges, the president was able to reshape the federal courts in the last year. With Republicans in control of the Senate, President Obama may have more difficulty getting his appointees through. This is a critical issue because there are always openings in agencies — think of the Attorney General, think of what occurs when there’s a change in the Supreme Court. All that stuff goes through the Senate.
This interview has been edited and condensed.