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Special to PoliticsPA: An Election Reflection, by Fred Yang

By Fred Yang


There’s no question that these past midterm elections were tough for Democrats.  But the bifurcated nature of November 2nd’s “wave” is notable.  Democrats lost the LARGEST number of U.S. House seats since 1938 and have the FEWEST number of Democrats in the House since 1947.  Yet while several Democratic incumbent U.S. senators were defeated, the Democrats CONTINUE to be the majority party in the U.S. Senate.  And while Pat Toomey is the Keystone State’s next senator, the fact that we had to wait until late Tuesday evening to determine the winner is a testament to the strong campaign that Joe Sestak ran.  Indeed, Congressman Sestak was running into a strong headwind here in Pennsylvania, with four Democratic House incumbents being defeated (and a Republican taking Sestak’s own congressional seat) and Democrats losing 15 seats (and thus control) in the State House.  But in the end, Toomey eked out a 79,000-vote victory (out of more than 3.9 million votes cast).  Thus, a brief analysis of key political, demographic, and geographic dynamics of Pennsylvania’s 2010 U.S. Senate race provides important insights into the election just past and the one looming in two years.

Most fundamentally, the 2010 election (and the 2008 election) was about voters’ continuing frustration and anxiety with the economy and joblessness.  In the November 2008 exit polls in Pennsylvania, among the 57% majority who said they were “very worried” about economic conditions, Obama defeated McCain by 63% to 36%.  In the November 2010 exit poll for the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, a 51% majority continued to be “very worried” about the economy (not much improvement in two years), and this time Republican Toomey won those voters by a decisive 68% to 31% margin.

In addition, as is the nature of most mid-term elections, the 2010 election was partly a referendum on the Obama administration.  A review of the vote percentage for Democratic SENATE candidates AND the Obama approval rating in their states shows a strong correlation between both variables.  Simply put, Democrats in states where President Obama had a 50% or higher approval rating won, while the converse also was true (with the ONE notable exception being Nevada, where Senator Harry Reid defeated Tea Partier Sharron Angle by 50% to 45%, despite Obama’s 45% approval rating in the state).  In Pennsylvania, President Obama had a 47% approval rating, slightly higher than the national average (45%).  And while Sestak won the Obama “approval” voters by an overwhelming 90% to 10%, the 53% majority of Pennsylvanians who disapproved of the president (and who voted for Toomey by 87% to 13%) was too much for the Democrat to overcome.

DEMOGRAPHICALLY, Joe Sestak was hampered by the sharp turn against Democrats nationally by two important groups: independents and seniors. 

  • In the 2006 mid-term elections in which Democrats recaptured both the House and the Senate, independents supported Democrats in the national exit polls by 57% to 39%, whereas voters age 65 and over were evenly divided between the two parties.
  • In the November 2nd national exit polls, independents reversed course from just four years ago and voted Republican by 56% to 37%.  And seniors just as decisively voted Republican by 59% to 38%; equally as important, not only did voters age 65 and over vote GOP in 2010, they turned out in HIGHER numbers than they did four years ago.
  • Given these broad trends, it is notable that Sestak fared better with independents than his counterparts did nationally, yet his 55%-to-45% defeat among them arguably was the decisive factor in his narrow defeat, as was the fact that he lost voters age 65 and over by nearly 20 points (59% to 41%).

GEOGRAPHICALLY, the results in four medium-size counties (two in Western Pennsylvania and two in the Philadelphia suburbs) help explain where and why Joe Sestak was defeated.  The following table shows the results for the 2006 U.S. Senate race, the 2008 presidential race, and the 2010 U.S. Senate race:

Butler County
Westmoreland County
Berks County
Bucks County
DEMOCRATIC Performance*
Casey vote – Santorum vote +690,766 -6,430 +9,267 +11,127 +39,812 +53,776
Obama vote – McCain Vote +620,428 -24,814 -29,753 +16,534 +28,783 -9,250
Sestak vote – Toomey Vote -79,187 -22,936 -26,249 -11,873 -14,169 -75,227
*“Democratic performance” is the net Democrat vote total in the four counties.

While it is admittedly simplistic and a narrow 79,000-vote defeat arguably has just as many explanations, the table above shows that the four counties listed above accounted for nearly all of Joe Sestak’s deficit.

Western Pennsylvania clearly is tough territory for Democrats, and it is notable that Barack Obama’s deficit in Butler and Westmoreland Counties is closer to Sestak ’10 than Casey ’06 (albeit differences in voter turnout).  So on the one hand, Sestak’s performance in Western Pennsylvania helped seal his fate.

Yet the table also shows that Sestak did not fare as well as Obama or Casey in the two Philadelphia suburban counties.  And in fact, Bob Casey won everyone of the seven counties that constitute the Philadelphia suburbs, whereas Joe Sestak won just Delaware and Montgomery Counties.

Looking ahead to the 2012 U.S. Senate election–while the 2010 results provide sobering lessons for Democrats in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to digest and to address, Bob Casey’s proven ability to appeal to the “Casey Democrats” in Western Pennsylvania (who have defected from other Democrats in recent elections) gives him an important head start for his first reelection campaign.

Mr. Yang is a partner with Hart Research Associates.

2 Responses

  1. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and
    now each time a comment is added I get four
    emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove
    people from that service? Thanks!

  2. This analysis of the election ignores the “elephant in the room”. Only Republicrats were aloud to compete so obviously a Republicrat won. All the opposition parties were outlawed, voter turn out was less then 50% and as usual a large number of the votes were simply not counted. You can’t hold an “election” where the result is predetermined and then expect any reasonable person to accept the result as valid.

    The United States has the least democratic electoral system in the western world. Until we start holding free elections in this country, with fair ballot access, proportional representation and honest and complete vote counts none of the people “elected” can really claim a mandate.

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