Lessons and trends from US midterm elections

4 min

US midterm elections unfolded according to predictions: Republicans took back the House of Representatives, while Obama’s Democrats held on to the Senate. takes a look at a few lessons that can be gleaned from the results.


A referendum on Obama?

According to exit polls, 37 percent of all voters said that one motivation behind their ballot choices was opposition to President Obama and his left-leaning agenda. This number illustrates that a significant portion of the American population is not comfortable with Obama’s sweeping reforms, such as the healthcare overhaul and stimulus spending. Obama will be expected to recalibrate his approach in response to the electorate’s message.

Tea Party a force to reckoned with

Victories by high-profile Tea Party-backed Republicans -- US Senate candidates Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky and Governor candidates Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico -- show that the Tea Party is more than a passing trend. Indeed, exit polls showed that more than four in ten voters support the movement. Still, losses for Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada suggest that the most extreme Tea Partiers are unlikely to succeed in certain parts of the country. After this election, the Republican establishment will now have to determine how much they allow the Tea Party movement to shape their agenda and define their tone.

The rise of minority Republicans

One trend to emerge from the results was the success of Republicans of colour, many of whom are considered rising stars within the party. Hispanic Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida for Senate, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada for governor, and Jaime Herrera of Washington for the House of Representatives, to name a few, all came out on top. Add to that list Indian-American Governor-elect Nikki Haley of South Carolina and African-American Congressmen-elect Allen West of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina, and the pattern of a diversifying Republican party seems clear.

Independent voters drift to the right

After supporting Obama in 2008, much-coveted independent voters backed Republican candidates in Tuesday’s elections by a margin of 55 percent to 39 percent. The remainder of Obama’s base – women, young people, blacks, and Hispanics – stayed faithful to Democratic candidates (to varying degrees); winning back independents will therefore be one of Obama’s chief challenges between now and his re-election bid in 2012.

Conservative Democrats lose big

In one of the more confusing trends from Tuesday’s election, Democrats who opposed some of Obama’s more unpopular left-wing measures (most notably, the healthcare overhaul) lost big last night; the size of the so-called “Blue Dog” coalition -- composed of Democrats who consider themselves fiscal conservatives -- was cut in half by Tuesday’s election, with a large portion of victorious Democrats coming from the centre or liberal wing of their party. Obama will surely keep this in mind, even if the reinforced Republican presence in Congress puts pressure on the president to move to the centre.

Nobody puts Harry Reid in a corner

The Democratic Senate majority leader is highly unpopular in his home state of Nevada, which has been hit hard by the economic crisis, and the latest opinion polls before the election showed him trailing to Tea Party-backed Republican Sharron Angle. But soft-spoken, often dour-looking Reid, a former boxer, punched his way through a tough campaign, slamming his more brash opponent as an extremist out of touch with the moderate Nevada electorate. Much to the surprise of pundits who had declared him political roadkill, Reid emerged victorious and will return to the Democrat-controlled Senate with his title in tact.

Californians don’t like marijuana as much as you thought

Though the famously laid-back residents of the sunny West Coast state backed Democrats in the big races on Tuesday, they rejected a proposition to fully legalise marijuana in California. Growing and selling marijuana for medicinal purposes has been legal in the state since 1996, but 57 percent of Californians voted against bringing the drug into the realm of mainstream consumption, cultivation, and trade.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning