As blogger Matthew Yglesias says, “The political importance of issue positioning is dwarfed by the political importance of objective reality.”

That, in short, is the main lesson, at the national level in the United States, of the general election held one month ago today. Sustainability advocates and other progressive forces lost a lot of ground, though perhaps less in the Northwest than elsewhere, but their losses were not because of their ideology. They lost because their leadership didn’t yield economic recovery quickly enough.

Although the election resulted in a rightward shift across Cascadia (except California), it would be a mistake to regard it as primarily a reflection of shifting public ideology. (As I’ll write another time, it’s even possible that no one changed his or her mind, just that different people voted. In particular, many of the young voters who swept President Obama into office in 2008 appear to have been AWOL last month.) Mostly, the election was a predictable consequence of hard times.

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  • Nationally in the United States, commentators of all political stripes offered explanations that matched those stripes. The right-of-center blog Real Clear Politics said the voters were telling the president he’s governing too far left. Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, conversely, said the president’s problem was governing too far right. The grassroots left at Huffington Post said the president needs to move way to the left. Others, especially media outlets that cover the horse race of politics, offered tactical explanations: A radio correspondent says the president needed better media strategy—specifically message discipline among supporters (listen to Act II). Two newspaper reporters credited a brilliant and secret Republican game plan.

    These explanations are not completely wrong, but they put the emphasis in the wrong places. In the United States overall, the outlines of what would happen in the November general election were visible months earlier. They were predicted by mathematical models that assume nothing whatsoever about campaign performance, left-leaning or right-leaning governance, or media strategy. Jonathan Chait, writing for the New Republic, explains.

    Political pundits generally . . . interpret elections as either a contest of tactics or an ideological mandate. (Generally the former style prevails before the election, the latter style after, so that in October we read that one party’s brilliant system for contacting voters in Ohio or a candidate’s boneheaded gaffe will determine the outcome of the election, and afterward we read grandiose pronouncements about an electorate embracing the winner’s political philosophy.)

    As Chait points out, political scholar Douglas Hibbs has a mathematical model that has predicted the parties’ wins and losses in mid-term Congressional elections with uncanny accuracy. The chart below shows modeled and actual results from a September paper, in which he predicts that Democrats would lose 45 US House seats in November. (They lost 60.) This chart wouldn’t be impressive if it were based on detailed polling a week or two before election day. It’s impressive because Hibbs’s method for mid-terms is based on nothing but the pre-election balance of seats between parties and the rate of real personal income growth. Because Democrats held so many seats, and because personal income has grown so slowly (not surprising, considering the near-collapse of global capitalism in 2008 and early 2009), their losses were very closely predicted by the model.

    Midterm House Election Results_Douglass Hibbs

    This model suggests that the main driver of electoral change in 2010 was recession. Other models built largely from economic variables (and structural factors such as the number of seats each party holds before an election) are also powerful predictors, as discussed by this paper from the libertarian Cato Institute, this one from a Yale political scientist, and this one by professors at Harvard and Columbia.

    From this perspective, campaigns and message discipline and candidates’ voting records and all the spin of politics are subsidiary causes of election outcomes. In particular, in hard times, when massive unemployment and elevated foreclosure rates have raised economic anxiety to exceptional levels, the in-power party suffers. Voters punish whoever is in charge, just as they punished President George W. Bush’s party in 2008.

    This intense dissatisfaction, manifested as opposition to the party in power, showed itself clearly in national exit polls. In short, the voters declared, “a pox on both your houses.” Voters viewed Republicans in as unfavorable a light as they viewed Democrats—both were regarded unfavorably by more people than regarded them favorably. The Pew Research Center summarizes:

    The outcome of this year’s election represented a repudiation of the political status quo, rather than a vote of confidence in the GOP or a statement of support for its policies.

    A corollary of this observation is that political campaigning and messaging matter less to voters than does their actual experience of their economic circumstances. From this it follows that public policy, which actually changes economic circumstances, matters a tremendous amount to election outcomes.

    To put it another way: the most effective campaign strategy doesn’t happen during election season, it happens during policy formation. So my advice to sustainability advocates and other progressives is to focus on winning the best policies possible. Yes, adapt to the new balance of power, which means looking for creative, effective, hybrid strategies that can marshal enough support to win legislative passage. (Here’s one, for example, and Sightline is identifying others—stay tuned.) No, don’t start channeling right-wing talking points. As I said, it was the economy, not ideology, that decided the 2010 general election.

    Note: Elsewhere, our election coverage has summarized the results across Cascadia, commented on the implic
    ations for climate policy and for green jobs, and highlighted California’s defeat of Prop 23.