No, Americans did not just vote to “drill, baby, drill!”
As soon as the results from Tuesday’s midterm elections were in, the oil industry knew how it wanted the Republican sweep to be interpreted: as a popular cry to “Drill, Baby, Drill!”
“In the 2014 election cycle, energy was a clear winner, because voters from every party recognize its key role in job creation and economic growth: the top priorities on Election Day,” said American Petroleum Industry President Jack Gerard on Thursday in a telephone press conference. “In race after race, voters from all regions of our nation and from both political parties voted for candidates who stood behind pro-development, all-of-the-above energy policies.”
Republicans are claiming a mandate to get that oil flowing, especially the extra-dirty stuff that comes from the Canadian tar sands. In an op-ed in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, House Speaker John Boehner and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said they would make job creation their top priority, and to that end, they would move quickly to approve drilling and pipeline applications:
Looking ahead to the next Congress, we will honor the voters’ trust by focusing, first, on jobs and the economy… These bills include measures authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will mean lower energy costs for families and more jobs for American workers… We’ll also consider legislation to help protect and expand America’s emerging energy boom.
You’d think that if Boehner and McConnell actually cared about permanent jobs, the fact that Keystone would only create 35 of them would push it way down their priority list. But then, if they cared about jobs, they would do a lot of things differently, from supporting more domestic spending to closing the infrastructure deficit.
Jobs are a just a fig leaf for Keystone’s real purpose, which is enriching fossil fuel interests. It’s not even true that Keystone would reduce American energy costs. By enabling oil from the North Dakota Bakken Shale to be brought to Gulf Coast refineries and exported, it would actually eliminate the current glut of oil in the Midwest and raise prices for Mid-western consumers.
But this is all well established. The big new question is whether Republicans are even correct in claiming a popular mandate for these policies.
The short answer: No. Only 34 percent of eligible voters came out to the polls on Tuesday, down from 58 percent in the 2012 presidential election and 41 percent in the 2010 mid-term. To claim any kind of mandate from an election that drew just a third of the eligible public would be a stretch.
The long answer doesn’t look much different, for three main reasons: First, most voters didn’t vote. Second, those who did were unrepresentative of the general electorate. And third, the exit polls don’t suggest that voters’ choices for candidates even reflected their preferences on issues or parties.
Let’s start with the low turnout. Midterms always have disproportionately lower turnout among younger, poorer, and nonwhite voters. Sure enough, on Tuesday the share of the electorate under 30 years old dropped to 13 percent from 19 percent in 2012, and the senior citizens’ share rose from 16 to 22 percent. This typical mid-term dynamic, which favors Republicans, was exacerbated by the fact that Republican state governments have recently passed restrictive voting laws, such as ID requirements, making it more difficult for many young, urban, or low-income people to vote.
Gerrymandering may have also depressed turnout. Thanks to partisan redrawing of House district boundaries, and the more efficient distribution of Republican voters across suburban and rural districts, Democrats are disproportionately packed into urban congressional seats. That has given Republicans an enormous advantage relative to their actual popularity. In 2012, Republicans retained their House majority despite winning 1.4 million fewer votes for House seats than Democrats. (Total House vote data is not yet available for this year’s election.)
In states without a Senate race, the only federal election this year was for Congress. But if you live in a non-competitive congressional district, as a large and growing share of Americans do, it seems less worthwhile to climb the barriers to voting that Republicans have erected.
So it’s no surprise that the voters in this year’s election were disproportionately old, white, rich, and Republican. Political scientist Patrick Egan, writing in the Washington Post, called it, “the most unrepresentative Senate election since World War II.”
But let’s set aside for a minute the questions of who voted and who didn’t, and just look at the question of whether voters were casting their ballots based on energy issues.
When it comes to the environment and energy, if you look at public opinion polls, majorities of Americans claim to simultaneously hold opposing views. Two-thirds accept climate science and want the government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but majorities also want to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would exacerbate climate change. So yes, as API loves to point out, Keystone polls well, but that’s because the average person asked about it knows nothing about the issue, couldn’t find the pipeline’s route on a map, and isn’t being asked to reconcile his concern about climate change with his vague sense that North American energy production is good for the economy.
Lest you doubt that there is any disconnect between what people believe and how they voted on Tuesday, consider that some of the very same states that elected Republican senators or governors simultaneously passed liberal ballot measures, like raising the minimum wage or legalizing medicinal marijuana.
Take a look at Iowa, where a majority of the same voters who chose right-wing Republican Joni Ernst also told exit pollsters that they favor legal abortion, legal gay marriage, and raising the minimum wage — all of which Ernst opposes. In Colorado, even as a 49 percent plurality of voters elected rabidly anti-abortion rights Rep. Cory Gardner to the Senate, more than 60 percent said abortion and gay marriage should be legal and illegal immigrants should get a path to citizenship. They also voted down a fetal personhood amendment, while Gardner is a cosponsor of a federal fetal personhood bill.
Perhaps their incoherence reflects ignorance of what the parties and candidates stand for. Although polling on that is hard to come by, there is ample evidence that most Americans do not know enough about politics to make informed decisions. In September, only 36 percent of Americans could name the parties each in control of the House and the Senate. Of course, anyone who does not know which party controls the House or Senate is incapable of intelligently judging the record of the incumbent candidate or party.
Exit polls did not ask about climate change, but there is no reason to think that it’s the lone case of voters’ behavior actually matching their positions. Four of the eight fracking bans on local ballots passed while the other four failed. Some climate hawks, like Senator-elect Gary Peters of Michigan, won. Others, like South Dakota’s Rick Weiland and Colorado’s Mark Udall, lost.
So if you’re looking for signals of an ideological shift, you can find evidence to support almost any argument, or none at all. Instead, it’s best to understand that the mid-terms in a president’s second term are traditionally dominated by a throw-the-bums-out, anti-incumbent sentiment, directed at the president’s party.
On top of that, the President is black, and a number of states with Senate seats up this year are the ones that have been slowly turning red ever since the Democrats passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The anti-Obama passion of many Republican voters in the South and Appalachia has little to do with his record, or that of the Democratic senators they just ousted.
More Louisiana Republicans blame Barack Obama for the federal government’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina than George W. Bush, who was actually president at the time. When Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., observed last week that Obama’s unpopularity in her state is partly because the South “has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans,” Republicans and conservatives cried crocodile tears. How dare Landrieu suggest race has anything to do with their seething hatred for Obama!
But it does. As a 2005 study in the American Journal of Political Science demonstrated, white Southerners with racist attitudes are more likely to vote Republican even when adjusting for their political ideology. Landrieu’s main Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, claimed Louisianans don’t like Obama because he won’t approve Keystone and they don’t like Obamacare. Really, how much more would Louisianans like Obama if he had approved Keystone?
In Kentucky, Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes refused to say whether she voted for Obama, but said she is a “Hillary Clinton Democrat.” Since Clinton and Obama are cut from the same ideological cloth, this is obviously just a code for “white Democrat.” Grimes lost her race against Mitch McConnell, just as Landrieu is likely to lose her runoff against Cassidy.
Obama is similarly unpopular for the same obvious reasons in West Virginia and Arkansas, which replaced Democratic senators with Republicans on Tuesday. The Republican takeover in all these states has been a long time coming, for reasons that have nothing to do with what voters think about pipelines and oil rigs.
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