11.03.10

The Obama Referendum

Judging exit poll numbers, last night was not a win for the GOP, reports pollster Douglas Schoen, but a repudiation of the president—and an ominous hint of confrontation to come.

Studying the numbers, last night’s election results show clearly and unambiguously that the election was a repudiation of President Obama, and the Democrats—not an embracing of the GOP.

Let’s start with turnout, which had been expected to skew heavily in the Republican direction in the pre-election Gallup polling but in fact proved evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Exit polling from Edison Research shows that 36 percent of the electorate was made up of Democrats, 36 percent was made up of Republicans—with the remaining 28 percent made up of unaffiliated voters. The generic vote overall was +6 for Republicans—not the 10 to 15 percent differential that some pollsters, particularly Gallup, had predicted.

Hispanics delivered Nevada for Harry Reid and, most likely, Colorado for Michael Bennet.

The real swing in the electorate was among Independent voters. They voted for President Barack Obama by 52 percent-44 percent in 2008; in this election, that more than reversed, to 55 percent -39 percent favoring the Republicans.

Race also provided a key barometer: white voters broke 60 percent -38 percent for the Republicans, demonstrating that the president’s dismal approval rating among this group—now in the high 30s—translated into a significant and substantial drop in support.

While African American and Hispanic voter turnout dropped from their 2008 levels—7 percent and 8 percent respectively—it is clear from the exit polls that these groups—particularly Hispanics—delivered Nevada for Harry Reid and, most likely, Colorado for Michael Bennet. Seniors broke by 19 percent for the Republicans, probably underscoring fears about the health- care bill, as their share of the vote increased to 25 percent—up from 16 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, voters aged 18-25 who had been 18 percent of the electorate in 2008, dropped to 11 percent.

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The electorate Tuesday was more conservative than it has been in the past—with four in 10 voters identifying themselves as ideological conservatives, as opposed to three in 10 in 2008. The bulk of Democratic support is now concentrated on the West Coast and in the Northeast. And indeed, when you look at the map of election results, at least in the House, the bulk of the South, Southwest, and Midwest are almost entirely red.

Perhaps most critically, both parties received favorability ratings below 50 percent—indicating how disgruntled—and polarized—the electorate has become. The Democrats are now down to a core base of white liberals, a few moderates in the Northeast and the West and several minorities groups, a leftward tilt that will almost certainly make it much more difficult for President Obama to cooperate with the Republicans. Meanwhile, the Tea Party members in the House and Senate—though not as robust a delegation as was originally thought—will do everything possible to hold the GOP to its stated principles.

It seems likely that what will flow from this is a period of confrontation and division, not conciliation and compromise—even if that should be the logical result of the election.

Douglas Schoen is a political strategist and author of the just-released book, "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" (Harper 2010), co-authored with Scott Rasmussen. During this election cycle, he worked for Florida Senate candidate Jeff Greene and New York governor candidate Andrew Cuomo.