What we learned from the U.S. Election

1) American voters can still swing. Older voters, working-class whites, and young voters can swing in their votes or their participation (huge increases in youth and minority turnout are good for Democrats; weak participation by these groups is good for Republicans) enough to dramatically change election outcomes.   We have seen Democratic triumphs and a Democratic Congress during the Clinton and Obama first terms, and Republican triumphs and a Republican Congress in their second.  But we also saw Republican triumphs during the GW Bush first term, and Congressional changes or even Presidential losses after Republicans George HW Bush’s first term and GW Bush’s second term.  So all predictions of a “permanent” Republic or Democratic majority – which seem to issue forth every eight years! – look hollow.

2) American remains geographically and ideologically polarized. The Northeast and West Coast look predominantly Democratic; the Plains states, Rocky Mountains, and the South look predominantly Republican.   National elections rest less on changing these patterns than on the ability to get out the vote and win strong majorities among supporters in a few key swing states, especially in the mountain states (Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico), the Midwest (Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan), and the mid-Atlantic (Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania) plus Florida.

3) American foreign policy is more than ever a hostage to domestic politics. If President Obama chooses to persist in his policies of withdrawal and caution in the international arena and in eastern Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan in particular, he will gain little cooperation from Congress, and will be perceived more than ever as weak and unable to act effectively.  On the other hand, if President Obama chooses to work with a united Republican Congress and adopt a firmer military and strategic stance, he may yet manage to revive perceptions of American strength and resolve.  But that also risks making foreign policy dependent on a Republican hard-core in Congress that has been more aggressive in foreign affairs than most Americans believe is wise.

4) American domestic and economic policy is now essentially frozen for the next two years. Congress is likely to block any progressive changes on immigration or taxation policy, while Obama is likely to veto any changes in health care policy.  It also remains to be seen whether Obama will be able to make any appointments to the federal judiciary or bureaucracy in the next two years; if not the government will continue to suffer from crucial shortfalls in key personnel.

It is now two years until the next major shake-up in American politics.  Hilary Rodham Clinton looks like the politician to beat — but the Republicans, now controlling  Congress and more governorships and state houses than ever — will do everything they can to prevent a Democratic Presidential victory in 2016.  But do the Republicans have any candidate who can beat history?  I do not see anyone now — but two years is an eternity in politics, and it will not be until middle of next year until we know for sure how the race will shape up.  It will be an interesting year.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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