What I Got Wrong: The Irrationality of Republican Voters

The most surprising trend on Election Day was Democratic Senate victories in bloodred states.

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I often say that my four favorite words are I told you so, so I’m doing plenty of gloating about President Obama’s comfortable victory. But I’m also doing some thinking about a trend I didn’t foresee: Democratic Senate victories in bloodred states. I was sure Republicans would win in Montana and North Dakota; I even thought the GOP rape-theory twins in Missouri and Indiana might shock the world.

I guess I didn’t think the voters would be so irrational.

I know, it’s uncouth to question the great wisdom of the public. And I’m glad that Missouri and Indiana voters rejected Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock; as an Obama sympathizer, I’m glad he won’t have to face obstruction from Denny Rehberg of Montana and Rick Berg of North Dakota either. But Republican partisans ought to be asking: What’s the matter with the heartland?

The truth is, Akin, Mourdock, Rehberg and Berg all would have been reliable votes for the GOP agenda, just like Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Ted Cruz of Texas and other Republicans elected to the Senate from states that Mitt Romney won easily. And when you’re electing a Senator, you’re basically electing a vote. For a President or a governor, character and experience and competence and ability to work across the aisle truly matter; you’re choosing someone to run your country or your state. In partisan Washington, the main responsibility of a Senator is to uphold or break filibusters, to advance or block the President’s agenda. The best way to know what politicians will do in Congress is to check whether there’s an R or a D after their names.

I get that Jon Tester, the seven-fingered farmer, and Heidi Heitkamp, the independent-minded breast-cancer survivor, were both charming salt-of-the-earth people and excellent candidates. But ultimately, they’re Democrats, and Democrats tend to vote with Democrats. I remember a chat I had a few months ago with Noah Bierman, the excellent Boston Globe reporter who was covering the Scott Brown–Elizabeth Warren race, back when Brown was ahead. I told him Warren would win in a blowout, because Massachusetts is a Democratic state. He told me Brown was an excellent candidate and that I’d feel differently if I were covering the race. I said that was probably true, but I was still right; the fundamentals just seemed too strong.

Well, I was right — those are my second-favorite four words — but when I applied the same logic to the middle of the country, I was wrong. Someone who wasn’t wrong could probably explain why better than I can, but I guess it comes down to voter psychology. Most Americans don’t follow public policy closely; voters in Montana and North Dakota saw Tester and Heitkamp as one of them. And after the backlash over the rape comments, voters in Missouri and Indiana saw Akin and Mourdock as theocratic embarrassments; they didn’t want to be the kind of people who supported candidates who had become national jokes. I think Republican politicians say crazy things all the time — about climate science, about the relationship between taxes and deficits, about the President — but apparently rape is a topic about which crazy things must not be said. If even the Republican establishment wouldn’t back Akin, why would Missouri voters?

Ultimately, though, they voted to advance the Obama agenda, which presumably wasn’t what they had in mind. And it wasn’t what I expected.