The 2010 elections provided much for the Republicans to celebrate and Democrats to lament. However, there are some takeaways both parties need to keep in mind going forward to avoid a electoral disaster in 2012.
Off-year elections are all about the president. Democrats can cite all the reasons they want as to why they got punished at the ballot box. Some of the reasons -- economy, history, and spending -- certainly ring legitimate. However, history tells us that off-year elections are a referendum on the president. In all but one off-year election since 1946, the president's party always loses seats in the House. The question of how many is directly linked to the president's approval. According to Gallup, if the president's approval is above 50 percent, the losses are limited to an average of 14 seats per election. If the approval number is below 50 percent, the losses grow to an average of 36 seats. President Barack Obama, saddled with an approval rating in the mid-40s, was the primary cause of the Democratic debacle. Takeaway: Dems need to buck up and accept the truth that Obama's aloof style is a turn off and better communication and voter engagement is the only way to fix it.
A pox on both their houses. While some Republicans may claim the election is a mandate in support of their agenda, exit polls tell a different story. Fifty-two percent of polled voters have an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party. That's hardly a surprise given their unified control of government and the current economic woes facing the country. However, 53 percent have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party. Congressional Republicans who think the outcome of this election is a mandate for their view of governance are overstating the case and run the risk of the kind of overreach some say the hurt the Democrats. Takeaway: The Republicans now have to put their collective hand on the steering wheel, and they better be responsible with it.
Look for rematches in 2012. We now have a different electorate for off-year and presidential elections. Off-year electorates are older and whiter than those in presidential years. That tells me that Republican gains in 2010 could be reversed in 2012 if turnout demographically mirrors 2008, which featured a younger, more racially diverse voter profile energized by a charismatic black candidate. Given the well-documented racial/demographic changes facing the country, Republicans will be hard pressed to maintain the gains they just won. Meanwhile, Democrats that lost close contests in marginal districts may be willing to seek rematches in 2012 because the demography of their district may be more favorable than now. This, of course, assumes no major changes following redistricting. Indeed, the likely court challenges may force many states to keep their current boundaries for 2012. Takeaway: Republicans should not overreach and Democrats should not think all is lost.
Obama the triangulator. The president has a choice to make: Drop or de-emphasize his desire to win bipartisanship and govern with an eye toward energizing the Democratic base for 2012 or take a page from Bill Clinton's book and triangulate his way to reelection even if it means coopting Republican ideas. If we know anything about Obama, it is that his personality will lead him to triangulate. He should hope for a useful foil on the other side and it seems likely that Speaker-elect Boehner will accommodate him. Takeaway: Obama may have to throw overboard some Democrats in 2012 to keep his job.
African American Republicans. One of the underplayed plot lines in this election was the so-called rise of African-American Republicans. Forty-two African Americans ran for the Republican nomination for House seats; 14 won. Going into this election, three had legitimate chances to win and two -- Tim Scott of South Carolina and Allen West of Florida -- actually won. They are the first African American Republicans to serve in the House since J.C. Watts in 2003. GOP activists will try to suggest that they represent the vanguard of black Republicanism and genuine competition for African-American votes. Takeaway: While two is certainly an improvement on zero, there is no credible evidence that this is the start of a trend.
Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of Republicans and the Black Vote. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.