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Election the Day after the Day after

Election analysis is a dark art and I'm not an expert, but here's a shot:

1. Was it a victory for the liberal wing of the Democratic party? Well, no. The exit polls are united on the fact that disgust with President Bush and the Iraq war was the dominant issue. The Democrats that took Republican seats tended to be from the social conservative side of the party, witness my own new congressman or the former sheriffs and football quarterbacks now populating the Democratic side of the House.

2. Was it a victory for the Democrats? Huge. And bigger than is typical in a midterm election.The New York Times this morning emphasizes that control of the House and the Senate is overshadowing equally significant gains in state legislative races, even in the South.

3. What do the ballot measures tell us? Bans on gay marriage pass in seven states (but one fails in Arizona, and almost fails in South Dakota); a ban on affirmative action passes in Michigan despite the opposition of *both* the Democrats and the Republicans, and the Michigan Catholic Conference, and the University of Michigan etc. (This has received surprisingly little play in the press.) Again, the general tenor is socially conservative.

4. What else do they tell us? The vote against the South Dakota abortion law -- which allowed abortions only if the life of the mother was at risk -- is significant, especially in a conservative state where Catholic bishops and priests had loudly endorsed it with homilies and prayer meetings. A ballot measure that banned abortions with exceptions for rape and incest victims might well have passed, as pro-life forces knew from the get-go, but it's striking that the more radical measure became the focus of debate. After massive financial support from the St. Louis archdiocese and from the pulpit, the campaign to stop stem cell research in Missouri also failed, although just barely. (And stem cell opponents were outspent by a few wealthy supporters.) The exit polls suggest Missouri Catholics voted against stem cell research, but only 55-45.

5. What else do they tell us? Efforts to raise the minimum wage pass in six states, including Nevada and Colorado, by large margins.

Verdict: a victory for socially conservative Democrats, and Democrats generally, and a rebuke (perhaps) for Catholic leaders intervening with heated rhetoric on hotly contested sexual ethics issues. (Archbishop Burke of St. Louis, during the stem cell debate, cheerfully compared it to the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when Christians praying the rosary defeated the "seemingly invincible" Turks "against all reasonable predictions.")

But the main social policy story, I suspect, viewed ten years out, will not be sexual ethics but a renewed focus on economic inequality (which is of course an undercurrent in the debate over affirmative action). If the Democrats are shrewd -- admittedly an open question -- they will tap into the groundswell of enthusiasm evident in the exit polls for increases in the minimum wage, checks on corporate salaries (Barry Diller pulled down $295 million last year) and anger about the profits of the pharmaceutical companies.

Agree? Disagree?

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4. Weren't the South Dakotans stuck with the version of the bill that passed the legislature, and didn't the pro-choice crew maneuver that into the ballot?Unlike Vietnam, citizens feel directly threatened by political events around the world, so I'm not surprised that many Americans cling to their values.Republican incompetence gift-wrapped this election. Democrats say thank you and get to work.Gay marriage almost failed in SD? Interesting. I suspect that the Church leadership in Missouri may have overplayed their hand on stem cells and cloning, hammering away at the faithful and alienating them in the process.Archbishop Burke may be passionate and sincere, but he strikes me as being too naive and too driven by emotions. We need a smarter approach on these ballot issues, or the hierarchy and pro-life lifers will sink the effort.

John:My research indicated the following:In Franklin D. Roosevelt's sixth year in 1938, Democrats lost 71 seats in the House and six in the Senate.In Dwight Eisenhower's sixth year in 1958, Republicans lost 47 House seats, 13 in the Senate.In John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson's sixth year, Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate.In Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford's sixth year in office in 1974, Republicans lost 43 House seats and three Senate seats.Ronald Reagan, lost five House seats and eight Senate seats in his sixth year in office.During eight years of Clinton Republicans picked up a total of 49 House seats and nine Senate seats in two midterm elections. Also, when Clinton won the presidency in 1992, his party actually lost 10 seats in the House only the second time in the 20th century that a party won the White House but lost seats in the House.So, how is the Democrats victory huge again?

Bob - Weren't '38 and '66 big for the GOP and '58 and '74 big for the Dems? For a "in the eye of the beholder" check out yesterday's 12:15 post at Talking Points Memo.

Mr. Schwartz --In 1938 the Republicans held only 88 seats in the House going into the election. 72 seats gained looks less significant in that context. In addition, 1937 had been one of the worst economic years in American history.And may I request we all ban the use of the term "socially conservative?" Heath Shuler has abortion views of which I am unaware, but much more significantly he is apparently strongly opposed to the "free trade" dogma that is dominant in elite opinion across the alleged liberal-conservative spectrum. I strongly suspect that that sort of issue will be where the action is.

I agree that if the Democrats shrewd, they will make a serious effort to raise the minimum wage, raise taxes on CEOs with astronomical salaries, and authorize negotiation with pharmaceutical companies to set drug prices, and I would add, make it easier for medicare recipients to use the prescription drug benefit. I will be interested to see if they succeed.

It depends on what region of the country you are looking at. The republican seats that fell in the Northeast probably fell to moderate to liberal Democrats. Those that fell in the South probably went to moderate to conservative Democrats. I think Ohio is the standout: Sherrod Brown is definitely liberal. So it's a mixed bag on that score.As for the SD referendum -- This was not a typical referendum measure but a law that had been enacted by the legislature. My understanding is that, prior to passage, there was an alternative with more liberal exceptions but that the pro-life advocates who introduced the legislation specifically wanted the more restrictive version. Since that was the version that became law, that's what had to be contested (as in, the law that passed was what the voters had to endorse or reject). So there was no maneuvering for more restrictive measure in the referendum to stack the deck. Is this a big mid-term change? It's big but not as dramatic as in some prior cycles, like 1974 and 1994, but it's a lot bigger than in 1998 and 2002. Hard to guage the impact of incumbency patterns and other trends. 1994 was as big as it was because there was a higher than average number of open seats in areas (the South) that had been trending Republican for a generation. Open seats are the most likely to change hands.

Is this thread continued above under the concession by Allen?I think John's analysis is quite good.Some things to add:-if corruption played an important role in the vote, ethics/lobbying/limiting earmarks and addressing the issue of signing statements may make political process an important change area.I suspect some health care reform beyond dealing with percription drug costs will be a major issue in years to come. Similarly, how we manage social security reform (and there must be some reform) and Medicare/Medicaid as well wil be central issues.The election quite truly did have some regional ramifications, but in general it nudged Democrats more into the values issues and perhaps the spotlight will remain there beyond two years if the partisan silliness dies down.

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About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.