Studies of public opinion trends over the past century show that the American public generally retreats from extremist ideological positions when it perceives policymakers have strayed too far in either a liberal or conservative direction. This is interpreted by most as a reflection of the centrist or moderate nature of Americans’ attitudes or policy preferences. In light of these findings, it would not be surprising for Americans to express increasingly conservative preferences as a reaction to the Obama administrations and Democratic control of the federal government over the past two years. The results of the 2010 midterm elections may be a manifestation of such a reaction. If so, it is important to note the country may not be saying it wants to move policy in a conservative direction, but rather in a less-liberal or moderate direction. The distinction is delicate.

It may be unwise to view the considerable gains by Republicans in 2010, especially in U.S. House races across the country, as evidence that the country is moving decidedly in an ideologically conservative direction. To be sure, midterms are routinely unkind to the party of the incumbent president, which has lost about 24 seats in the U.S. House on average in these elections during the postwar era. But Republicans made gains at twice that rate in 2010, so it is tempting to perceive the results as a wholesale repudiation of Obama, Democrats, and liberal policies. But that is not necessarily true.

The results more likely represent fundamental changes in the composition of the electorate in 2010 compared to the two prior federal elections cycles. Conservatives were fired up about prospective gains, and they showed up to the polls to fight for them. Unenthusiastic Democrats simply stayed on the sidelines. It may not be that the country has become more conservative or Republican, but that the voter pool reflects shifts in these directions. By contrast, in 2006 and 2008, amidst tumbling approval ratings for George W. Bush and frustration about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, energized Democrats were motivated to vote more so than dispirited Republicans. The outcomes in these years likely reflect these inequities.

Even if America is not moving in a more conservative or Republican direction, the outcomes of the 2010 midterm cycle reveal the public is willing to exact retribution—and even crushing blows—on the party it perceives to be failing to deliver results, especially on the economic front, regardless of what party it is. In that sense, the country may be moving in what some, including Barack Obama, have called a post-partisan direction. But we are still living in an era of extreme partisan polarization in Washington, and how the president and both parties react to the new political landscape over the next two years will determine, at least to some extent, how the public updates it political preferences. 

Costas Panagopoulos is the executive editor at C&E.