NEWS 2011

Reading Tea (Party) Leaves for the 112th Congress

Research provides glimpse of policies, politics in store


discussing midterm elections
From left, IPR panelists Kenneth Janda, Laurel Harbridge,
and David Dranove discuss implications of the
2010 midterm elections.

On January 10, five days after the 112th Congress was sworn in and two days after the Arizona shootings, more than 65 people crowded into an IPR forum to hear three faculty experts discuss some policy implications of the 2010 midterm elections.

Pundits have pointed to discontent over healthcare reform, the rise of the so-called Tea Party, and increased polarization in Congress as fueling voter anger and Republican gains, including their takeover of the House. But does the research back these claims? And if so, what effects might they have on the political process and policies?

Less Partisan Bickering, More Bipartisanship?

Laurel Harbridge
Laurel Harbridge

Despite calls for greater civility and cooperation following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) and others at a political rally in Tuscon, IPR political scientist Laurel Harbridge doubted that partisanship would dissipate much in the new term.

Tallies of roll call votes show that the last Congress was highly polarized, with members on both sides of the aisle voting the party line 90 percent or more of the time. That trend looks to continue in the 112th, as many of the new members are conservative Republicans—some catering to an even more conservative base—possibly making it the most ideologically conservative Congress in recent decades.

Yet two factors hint at the possibility of more across-the-aisle cooperation: first, a public that says it favors compromise, and second, the need for a record of legislative success to showcase in the 2012 elections.

“Neither party can be the party of ‘no’ and hope to do well in the next election,” Harbridge said.

Even though most Americans say they want more bipartisan cooperation, this is less true for more partisan voters, with Republicans currently more resolute, Harbridge noted. In a recent poll, 41 percent of Republicans wanted political leaders to stick to their beliefs even if little gets done versus 25 percent or less for Democrats and Independents.

The End of Healthcare Reform?

David Dranove
David Dranove

Healthcare economist and IPR associate David Dranove correctly called the shot that House Republicans would vote to repeal healthcare reform legislation. Certain parts of the law, however, are popular with Democrats and Independents and are certainly here to stay and are certainly here to stay, he said.

For example, under the new law, children cannot be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions and can remain on their parents’ plan up to age 26.  Other popular pieces of the law require individual and small-group insurers to spend at least 80 percent of premiums on medical expenses and eliminate lifetime caps on medical care and co-pays for an array of preventive services.

Three items that also seem likely to remain involve Medicare: bonus payments to providers for primary care, providing for annual end-of-life consultations, and a plug for the “donut hole” in the Part D Prescription Drug Plan—a window in which seniors have had to pay all of their prescriptions out of pocket.

However, Dranove sees shakier ground for state-by-state health insurance exchanges—a key feature of reform—especially since government funding won’t kick in until 2014 and Republicans have threatened to cut it off.

Dranove’s research has shown that a national system of electronic health records could help control costs, but he calculates it needs three times more than the current $15-billion allotment to deploy successfully. Though only a “drop in the bucket” in terms of eventual cost savings, he said, higher funding is unlikely.

The biggest question mark, Dranove emphasized, is what will happen with the constitutional challenge to the mandate for individuals to purchase insurance and whether it runs afoul of Congress’ right to regulate interstate commerce.

“It’s not clear whether the mandate to buy health insurance is the equivalent of participating in a business,” he explained.

Tea Party or tea party?

Kenneth Janda
Kenneth Janda

While many attributed the midterm blowout to the rise of the Tea Party, the handful of official Tea Party candidates won few votes. Rather, a nationwide swing toward the Republican Party better explains its takeover of the House, said Northwestern political scientist Kenneth Janda.

He pointed out that the “tea party” is a movement—not an established political party warranting capital letters—and a very regional, fragmented, and extremely partisan one at that. It is composed of many unconnected organizations, from local to national ones, whose supporters are mainly conservative Republicans. A recent survey of 647 grassroots tea party groups reported 70 percent of them had little to no money and no official candidates. 

Furthermore, in the 66 districts where Republicans took formerly Democratic seats in 2010, Republicans picked up about 12 percentage points on average compared with their shares in these districts in 2008, Janda said. According to his analysis, these gains were about the same regardless of whether or not the Republican candidate was endorsed by a tea party group.

Ironically, tea party support did seem to matter in many Democratic-held districts, where losing Republicans who had tea party support managed to improve their party’s vote share over 2008 significantly more than their peers who had run without any tea party endorsements.

He cited the example of Arizona’s 8th District, held by Giffords, who won over her 2008 Republican opponent 55 to 43 percent. Her 2010 opponent, who was endorsed by two tea party groups, took 47 percent of the vote, thus improving the Republican showing by 4 percentage points. Nevertheless, Gifford won with 49 percent. 

Janda compared the politically inexperienced “tea partiers” with Ross Perot’s supporters in 1992. Temporarily energized for Perot’s campaign against the budget deficit, they propelled Perot to capture 19 percent of the popular vote for president that year but did not remain as active in his 1996 presidential campaign, when Perot took only 8 percent of the vote.

“It is not a movement that is naturally cohesive and will not be a campaign force in 2012,” Janda predicted.

Only time will tell whether this election was truly transformative and how these three key areas will play out, but we do know that this midterm “shellacking” was not that unusual.

According to the forum’s moderator, IPR political scientist James Druckman, there have only been two elections since 1938 in which the president’s party did not suffer election losses—1998 and 2002. In fact, the Democrats’ 2010 losses were just slightly above average over previous years.


To find each speaker’s slides and a more detailed explanation of their presentations, go here.