Conventional Wisdom Revisited

Betsy Newmark believes Tuesday’s results “contradicted several points of conventional wisdom about what takes place in elections.”

1. Incumbents have an almost insurmountable advantage and their defeat is a rare, special event.

This is still manifestly true. The stars were spectacularly aligned for a whuppin’ of the Republicans. Having majorities in both Houses of Congress and the White House, they have presided over a very unpopular war and massive increases in the budget deficit. They have engaged in corruption of Rostenkowski-esque proportions, from browbeating lobbyists for contributions to Indian gaming payola. There was even gay underage hooker sex on meth. I mean, damn. Yet, they came within a few votes in Montana or Virginia–where the Republican incumbents had plenty of their own baggage–of keeping control of the Senate.

2. Gerrymandering has succeeded in making it impossible to oust incumbents.

The CW is that Gerrymandering has made it damned hard to oust incumbents. And it has.

3. Midterm elections are decided on local issues.

And they usually are. Indeed, they likely played the dominant role even this go-round. It takes major polarizing events to nationalize elections. It has happened three times in the last 16 election cycles: 1974, 1994, and to a lesser extent 2006.

4. People vote their pocketbooks — if they did Jennifer Granholm wouldn’t have been reelected.

Of course, public confidence in the Republican handling of the economy isn’t exactly gangbusters right now.

5. The candidate with the most money wins.

He usually does. I haven’t seen all the breakdowns in this election, especially at the House level. The key Senate races had so much national money thrown at them as to make the CW irrelevant.

6. Delivering the pork insures an incumbent’s reelection. Tell that to all those incumbents who bragged on what they’d brought home to their constituents and got ousted for their troubles.

I’d tell it to the 405 or so out of 435 who were re-elected.

7. The Republican GOTV efforts are worth an extra few points in tough races.

They are. It’s just that in incredibly energized races, both sides do a great job of getting the vote out.

8. Exit polls have lost their predictive powers. In fact, they were pretty straight on.

The methodologies changed in response to 2000 and 2004 debacles. And, really, how good were they? Here’s the numbers that were widely circulated around 6 pm:

    Democrats leading:
    Virginia 52-47
    Rhode Island 53-46
    Penn 57-42
    Ohio 57-43
    New Jersey 52-45
    Montana 53-46
    Missouri 50-48
    Maryland 53-46

    Republicans leading
    Tennessee 51-48
    Arizona 50-46

Directionally, they were all right. Then again, they all coincided with the national polls. Margin wise, though, they were off in many cases. Certainly, Virginia, Montana, and Maryland were a lot closer than those numbers.

9. The extreme fringe of the Democratic Party has taken over the entire party and is now in the driver’s seat. Tell that to candidates like James Webb and Heath Shuler. And to Joe Lieberman. We’ll just have to see how well they can all work together or which group will have to sacrifice what it professes to believe.

Well, Joe Lieberman got kicked out of the party, although he will caucus with them. But this view isn’t the CW, anyway, it’s the view of a segment of the Right Blogosphere. The countervailing CW is that the Democrats are now beholden to the Blue Dogs, a CW that the Netroots are working to counter.

10. The Republican base is so sick of the media bias that they will turn out to vote against the media.

I’m not sure this is CW, especially in the era where most Die Hards can watch Fox News and avoid the MSM altogether.

11. Voters won’t turn out in a midterm election.

Generally speaking, they won’t. It takes an amazing amount of controversy combined with a lot of tight races that can change the direction of the Congress to get folks excited in the off years.

12. All those polls leading up to the election were missing Republicans who didn’t like to talk to pollsters.

Again, that’s not so much CW as hopeful spin from the Right. The polls were actually all over the place, though. Those of us who didn’t cherry pick polls going our way but instead relied on things like the RealClear Politics aggregate were much less surprised by the outcome.

13. Voting irregularities will doom this election. That only happens when Republicans win.

Well, there is that.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Your responses are spot on.

    I haven’t confirmed the numbers myself, but as I understand it, a 30 seat swing in the House and 6 in the Senate in a 6-year election is the historical norm. As such, the drama of this week isn’t really all that dramatic.

    What makes it seem dramatic is the emotion of the moment (whether it be the netroots or certain segments of the Right Blogosphere).

  2. Ken says:

    Great post – good ideas to think about. I think you’re on about Fox News – it’s much, much harder to claim a liberal bias when it’s so easy to avoid (if it existed).

    And that the Republicans couldn’t play the Dow at all-time highs into victory speaks about their strategy. Of course, all-time highs mean a drop is around the corner, so I suppose the dems will get the blame for that?

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    Actually, in 86 and 98, (the last two six-year elections), the swings were much, much smaller.

  4. Alex,

    I need to look up the numbers, as I am curious.

    1998 is an outlier year historically–that much I know for sure.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Steven and Alex: The historical trends have tightened up in recent years. In both 1986 and 1998, the loss in the House was 5 seats. Not sure about the Senate offhand.

  6. legion says:

    Well, the 6-year data is interesting, but it’s not the whole story. I don’t have the stat-fu to dig it up, but I’m curious how the 6-year changes (both recent and historical) compare to their own 2- and 4-year prior elections – i.e., were the 6-year changes in-line with trends in the most recent elections in each period?

    The reason yesterday’s changes are so important is because they starkly reversed the trend to greater (or at least continued) GOP control, not because they do or don’t match up with historical norms…

  7. talboito says:

    Fox News is the MSM.