4 Votes That Doomed the Democrats


Did controversial, progressive votes on health care, the stimulus, the bank bailout, and climate reform doom House Democrats? You'd think not, after a quick scan of the midterm results. Democrats who voted against health care lost at a higher rate than Democrats who backed the White House. Of the 42 House Democrats who voted against climate change, 25 lost -- a worse reelection rate than the national average. Of the eligible Senate Democrats who voted for both the stimulus and health care, all but two won (I'm not counting Arlen Specter).

But statistics tell a different story: Progressive votes hurt -- a lot. Let's consider three analyses.

Every Vote Mattered begins where I began. He counted how many of the four bills Democrats voted for (health, stimulus, TARP, climate), and then tabulated the average vote for each group:


Support for these bills appears to have helped rather than hurt, he notes. He's right! But this fails to take voter demographics into account. The representatives most likely to vote for liberal bills were the most likely to represent the safest, most liberal districts, and the opposite is true for conservative Democrats.

So McGhee modeled Democratic vote share based on voters and campaign money, and mixed in voting statistics to see if it made a difference. He found a Democratic incumbent in a typically Democratic district lost about 2/3 of a percentage point for every yes vote. For Democrats in the least Democratic districts, the model suggests a loss of about 4 percent for every yes vote.

If vulnerable Democrats hadn't voted for any of the four bills, he concludes, Democrats would have won 32 more seats, enough to retain control of the House. Even after you remove TARP (which was a must-vote in scary times), the three-vote impact was 24 seats -- not enough to keep the House, but close.

Health Care Mattered the Most

Steven Greene and Seth Masket, a political scientist out of Colorado who writes the Enik Rising blog, focus on the granddaddy of controversial votes: the Affordable Care Act. They project that Democratic House members who voted for health care reform would do an average of 5.2 percentage points worse than those who voted against it -- even after controlling for district partisanship.

Greene and Masket counted eight of 41 ousted House Democrats who voted for health care and lost by less than 5.2 percentage points. By their (admittedly simplistic) calculus, that means Democrats lost eight seats on Tuesday because of the health care vote, and the health care vote alone. Their analysis also found that five Democratic members who voted against health care won reelection and would have lost if they'd voted yes.

Climate Change Didn't Matter -- At All

The health care vote hurt, but the House cap and trade vote had hardly any effect, writes Josh Rosenau at ScienceBlogs. He developed a statistical predictive model for the midterm. Mixing in health care improves the prediction. Mixing in climate change votes doesn't help at all. "There's no evidence that voting for or against the climate bill did Democrats any harm at the polls," he writes.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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