Throughout this election season, considerable speculation emerged about how Republicans would once again minimize midterm turnover. In the aftermath of their heavy midterm losses, though, some of these Republican myths can now be dispelled:
1. Republicans win on "fear factor."
Republicans have long benefited from instilling fear into voters. When issues such as crime or foreign threats have surfaced in the past, voters have historically turned to the Republicans in heavy numbers. For example, in 2004, 56 percent of voters trusted Bush to handle terrorism, compared to only 40 percent for Kerry.
Although the Republicans once again attempted to scare up support by emphasizing threats from terrorism and illegal immigration, they had much less success convincing voters in the 2006 elections that they were better suited to confront these issues than Democrats.
Exit polls showed that 51 percent of voters thought the Democrat Party would make the country safer from terrorism compared to 58 percent of Republicans. Of those who thought the Democrats would make the country safer, 75 percent voted for a Democratic House candidate. Of those who thought the Republicans would make the country safer, 65 percent voted for a Republican House candidate.
Sixty-two percent of voters said immigration was a very important or extremely important factor in their House vote. Of those, voters were split nearly 50-50 between those who chose a Democratic House candidate and those who chose a Republican House candidate.
2. Republican scandals were "much ado about nothing."
Despite Republicans downplaying the impact of Jack Abramoff's indictment and Mark Foley's problems, scandals had a substantial effect on congressional races.
Forty-one percent of voters named corruption as an extremely important factor in their House vote, more than any other issue. Of those saying corruption was an extremely important issue in their vote, 60 percent voted for the Democrat House candidate, compared to 36 percent who voted for the Republican House candidate.
At least 13 seats that switched from Democrat to Republican involved Republicans.
Incumbent Republicans lost House races in California's 11th Congressional District, North Carolina's 11th Congressional District, Ohio's 18th Congressional District, and Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, in part, because of the Abramoff scandal. Other corruption allegations cost Republicans in Colorado's 7th Congressional District, Florida's 22nd Congressional District, Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, and Texas' 22nd Congressional District.
The Foley scandal cost incumbent Republicans seats in Florida's 16th Congressional District, Kansas' 2nd Congressional District, and New York's 19th Congressional District.
In addition, Republican incumbents lost Pennsylvania's 10th Congressional District and New York's 20th Congressional District due to their alleged mistreatment of women.
3. GOP prospects were rising with improving economic tides.
The Bush administration spent much of the last month touting economic figures in their belief that voters would demonstrate their gratitude for a thriving economy. In October, the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since May 2001. The price of gas has dropped since mid-summer. And, the Dow Jones industrial average reached its all-time high in the past few weeks.
The problem for Republicans was that voters disagreed with their assessment. Voters across the country judged the economy to be underperforming, and punished them as a result.
Fifty-one percent of voters thought the economy was not good or poor. Of those who thought the economy was not performing well, 77 percent voted for the Democrat candidate in a House race, while only 20 percent voted for the Republican candidate in a House race.
Thirty-nine percent of voters also said the economy was an extremely important factor in their House vote. Of those saying the economy was an extremely important issue in their vote, 59 percent voted for the Democrat, compared to 39 percent who voted for the Republican.
Poor judgments of the economy also played a role in key Senate races. For example, in the Missouri and Ohio Senate races, more voters said the economy was an extremely important factor in their Senate vote than any other issue. Of those fingering the economy as an extremely important issue in these two states, more than 60 percent selected the Democratic candidate in their House vote.
Moreover, voters ignored Republican forecasts about the threats posed to the economy by rising labor expenses and backed minimum wage proposals in five states to aid the working poor. Majorities of voters supported raising the minimum wage in Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio.
4. In Republican victories, it's all about the "Benjamins."
Money has frequently been a key factor in securing victory for Republicans in heated congressional races. However, only one of the Republican candidates in the eight most hotly contested Senate races won when they outspent their Democrat opponents during the campaign, according to the Center of Responsive Politics based on expenditures as of Oct. 18, 2006.
Republican Jim Talent was defeated by Democrat Claire McCaskill in the Missouri Senate race and Rick Santorum was defeated by Democrat Bob Casey in the Pennsylvania Senate race, despite spending $10 million more than their opponent.
In Virginia, Republican George Allen spent twice as much on the campaign as Democrat James Webb yet lost, as did Republican Conrad Burns in his setback to Democrat Jon Tester in Montana.
In addition, Republican Michael Steele spent more money than Democrat Ben Cardin in losing to him in the Maryland Senate race. Republican Mike DeWine spent more than Democrat Sherrod Brown in his losing bid for the senate seat in Ohio. And, Republican Lincoln Chafee spent more money on the campaign than Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in his loss in the Rhode Island Senate election.
Only in Bob Corker's victory over Harold Ford Jr. in the Tennessee Senate race did the Republican candidate win when outspending his opponent — and only by a three-point margin.
5. Republicans own suburbia.
Historically, Republicans have dominated the vote in suburban locations. In 2000, 49 percent of suburbanites voted for Bush, compared to 47 percent who voted for Gore. In 2002, 57 percent of suburban voters opted for House Republican candidates, compared to 40 percent who opted for House Democratic candidates. And, in 2004, 52 percents of suburbanites chose Bush for president, as opposed to 47 percent who chose Kerry.
In 2006, this trend was reversed. Fifty-one percent of suburbanites voted for House Democratic candidates, compared to 48 percent who voted for House Republican candidates — a drop in support for House Republican candidates by nine points from the previous midterm elections.
The exit polls mentioned in this story were conducted by Edison / Mitofsky Research for the National Election Pool among 13,208 voters nationwide as they left the polls on Nov. 7, 2006. The margin of sampling error for the survey is plus-minus 1 percentage point for the entire sample.
Samuel J. Best is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. He has published a book and several scholarly articles on American public opinion and survey research. He holds a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
By Samuel J. Best