Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why Boehner Is Wrong About Mandate On Taxes

"In a warning to President Obama, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday night that the reelection of the House Republican majority means that there is “no mandate for raising tax rates” on the American people." [From The Hill]

This seems like a lame attempt to gather some mojo in the coming battle over the so called Fiscal Cliff avoidance.   But it's nonsense.  Here's why.

First, I doubt that the voters were sending any sort of cohesive group message.  Different people voted the way they did for all sorts of different reasons.  But I'm going to focus here on just one tiny aspect -  whether keeping a Republican majority in the House can be interpreted as  the American people rejecting raising tax rates.

First, if any of the races could be considered a mandate on anything nationally, it would be the Presidency.  It's the only race in which all the voters in the US participate.

Second, comes the Senate races.  Each state gets two US Senators.  Every voter in each state can vote for the US Senators.  The district boundaries are the state boundaries.

But, third, when it comes to the House, things change completely.  Except in the lowest population states, like Alaska, which have only one representative, House districts are generally drawn with political intentions.  Each party in each state tries to carve out districts that will give an advantage to their own party. (Don't get me wrong, Alaska does that too, but for state races, not federal.)

We just went through Constitutionally required redistricting using the 2010 Census data so we have new house districts.  And since Republicans held 29 governorships, Republicans had  more control in more states over  how the districts were redrawn.  Given that one could make the argument that if the House stayed the same, it was a mandate against the Republicans.  

Unless there's a wholesale change in the House, as there was in 2010, not much of a message is being sent.  And even then, it's hard to know exactly what the message was.  Besides, in many House races local issues and the personalities of the candidates are often more important than national issues.

Keeping the status quo - keeping the Republican majority in the House - doesn't mean much.  Since the House districts are set up to heavily favor the incumbents,  it's hard not to keep the House the same.

But the House didn't stay the same.  The Republicans lost two seats to the Democrats.

And there are six more seats still too close to call.  In five, the Democrat is ahead. The one Republican who's ahead is only ahead by 36 votes. 

State District Numbers Margin
UD 11/18 Dem won

Rep:125,223 - 50%
Dem:125,187 -50%
36 votes

[UD11/14: Dem won]
9 Dem:88,331 -48%
104, 506

Rep: 84,236 46%
98,006 -

Lib: 11,729 - 6%
13, 835
[UD 11/16: Dem won]
7 Dem:105,245 119,726
Rep: 103,466  115,902
[UD 11/16: Dem won]
52 Dem:110,825 -50% 124,746
Rep: 109,491 -50%  122,086
UD 11/18 Dem won
18** Dem: 166,890 - 50%
Rep: 164,448 - 50%
N. Carolina
UD 11/18 Dem won***
7 Dem: 167,590 - 50%
Rep: 167,057 - 50%
*Gabrielle Giffords' old seat   
 **One of two Black Republican incumbents -found
conflicting final numbers in this race, so I'm just leaving these
***Recount still possible    

I put the table together with data from's election results.

I said above that House seats districts are drawn up to retain the incumbent.  Let me give you an example.    I've been working on an update of an old post on the number of Black members of Congress .  (I updated for the 2008 election, but somehow missed the 2010 election.)

In going through each Black members' election numbers I was struck by the large majorities.  I knew this was the case, but it always surprises me.  Here are the percentages for each of the winning Black Congress members.  (In some cases there were more than two candidates.)  I've sorted them from the lowest percent win to the highest.

60% -37%-3%
67% - 31%-1-0%

In this case - the African American districts - I can't help but wonder whether they were packed into districts to make the nearby districts easier for Republicans to win.  After all, if you win by 90%, you could trade 40% of the Democrats for Republicans from a neighboring district and probably win that one as well and keep the first one.

And to be sure the African-American districts weren't skewed compared to the rest of the House*, I went through's first of four pages of results:

Under 55% of votes = 24 races
55%-59% of votes = 24 races
60% - 69% of votes = 33 races
70% - 79% of votes = 32 races
80% - 89% of votes = 7 races
Page 1 of election results - Alabama - Florida

So, of 120 races (435 House seats total), only 20% won by less than 55% of the vote.   

Don't believe me?  Here's from a Washington Post story about a FairVote report, Monopoly Politics 2012, on the effect of redistricting on Congress.  They say it will be more partisan because more House seats are solidly Republican or solidly Democratic.
"(A side note: the Fair Vote study also shows the inherent advantage Republicans have in the House, with 195 districts leaning their way, compared with 166 that leans [sic] Democrats’ way. A big part of this is because Democratic voters are more concentrated in urban areas.)"
Not all House races were blowouts.  There were some close ones.  For example,  the six in the table above.  And Michele Bachman  just barely won reelection. 

So maybe, we could take a Presidential vote as a mandate for something if there were a resounding victory for one candidate and the race boiled down to one issue.  The Senate may also tell us something.  The House races are much trickier to use as a barometer of voter intent.

Of course, you can just ask people.   The Associated Press did an exit poll that claims to interpret the message people were sending with their vote.  Here are two short excerpts:
WASHINGTON — The voters have a plan: Consider raising taxes on the wealthy, but not everybody else. Shrink the government. Work harder on creating jobs and holding the line on prices, because economic worries are more important than cutting the deficit right now.  .  .
— Most voters aren’t that focused on taming the deficit. A strong majority say the economy is the most important issue. The deficit was picked by only 15 percent, coming in behind health care but ahead of foreign policy.
— Taxes don’t top the list of people’s financial troubles. The biggies are unemployment and rising prices. Only 14 percent of voters ranked taxes as the biggest economic problem for people like them.
— When the two go head to head, taxes trump the deficit. Sixty-three percent rejected the idea of raising taxes to help cut the nation’s budget deficits, even though they’ve been hitting about $1 trillion per year.
It seems we aren't as concerned about the  deficit as the economy in the short term and that we are okay with taxes, but not to cut the deficit.  I'm reading into that, that we don't want to adversely affect the slowly recovering economy.  A less charitable interpretation might be "we should deal with the deficit, but not in a way that negatively affects me."

On Wednesday, I'd note, Boehner said that "if there was a mandate in yesterday's elections, it was a mandate to find a way to work together on the solutions to the challenges we all face as a nation." [From ABC News.] That's a little more positive. If the first quote above was aimed at the President, probably this one is aimed at this Republican House colleagues.   I'd say his mandate here probably comes from opinion polls more than from the election. 

But the real questions seems to be whether, as another ABC piece ponders,  Boehner can pull his Republican majority members together or whether they will pull him, and the party, apart.  

*The African-American races had considerably higher margins of victory than the cumulative Alabama - Florida races.  No winning African-American  candidate was under 60% and a bunch were in the 90 percent level. 

[Note to myself:  This was supposed to be a quick short post given using data from a different post, but once again I let myself get carried away.  Sorry self.]

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