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Is wage stagnation killing the Democratic Party?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In an interesting column at The Upshot, David Leonhardt argues that the Democratic Party's 2014 drubbing can be traced back to their inability to clearly answer this question: "How does the Democratic Party plan to lift stagnant middle-class incomes?"

The facts here are stark: "Median inflation-adjusted income last year was still $2,100 lower than when President Obama took office in 2009  —  and $3,600 lower than when President George W. Bush took office in 2001," Leonhardt writes. He calls this "the Great Wage Slowdown of the 21st Century," and says that "nothing presents a larger threat to the Democrats' electoral fortunes than that slowdown."

Like Leonhardt, I think the wage slowdown is one of the defining issues of our time. And I would actually like it to be the force driving American politics. But I'm not sure it is. A few reasons for skepticism:

1) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average hourly earnings rose at roughly the same rate during 2011-2012 as they did during 2013-2014. But one of those cycles ended with Democrats routing the Republican Party and the other ended with Republicans routing the Democratic Party. It's hard to attribute such wildly different electoral outcomes to such a stable trend.

2) Democrats didn't do noticeably better in states with better economies. South Dakota, for instance, has the second-lowest unemployment rate in the nation — but Democrats lost the Senate seat there. Iowa, Montana and Colorado have the 10th, 11th, and 12th lowest unemployment rates —  but Democrats got stomped in all three states. Meanwhile, California, Michigan and Oregon have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country —  but all three were bright spots for Democrats.

3) Among voters who said "the economy" is the most important issue in American politics, the election was extremely close. 48 percent of those voters sided with the Democrats, and 50 percent sided with the Republicans. The really lopsided margins against Democrats came among the 14 percent of voters who said illegal immigration was the top issue (74 percent voted for Republicans) and the 13 percent of voters who said foreign policy was the top issue (56 percent voted for the Republicans).

vote economy 2014 exit

CNN

4) Democrats won the most votes among voters with the lowest incomes. They won 59 percent of voters making less than $30,000, and 51 percent of voters making between $31,000 and $50,000, and lost every income class above that. Their most lopsided defeat came among voters making more than $100,000 — they gave 57 percent of their votes to Republicans.

vote income 2014

CNN

5) Leonhardt's main advice to Democrats is to run "probably the oldest and most obvious play in the book: a tax cut." He notes that in 2008, Barack Obama ran on a bigger middle-class tax cut than John McCain, and "by the campaign's end, polls showed that many voters understood this fact  —  and viewed the Democrats as the party of tax cuts." But I think the telling point comes in the aftermath: in office, Obama passed that tax cut  —  and more tax cuts —  and then Democrats got destroyed in the 2010 election. So it's not clear that middle-class tax cuts are much of a salve.

The hardest question in American politics

The question Leonhardt is trying to answer here is perhaps the most significant one in politics: why are election outcomes so volatile in recent years? What can we say about an electorate that voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in 2006, 2008 and 2012, and overwhelmingly for Republicans in 2004, 2010, and 2014? Party control in Congress has flipped more often in recent years than at anytime since the immediate aftermath of World War II. What are the voters trying to say?

I suspect the answer has more to do with structural changes in American politics than with the mood of the electorate. Voter opinion seesawed in previous decades, too, but for various reasons, control of Congress wasn't as closely divided, and so didn't change hands as often. This chart — which remains incomplete for 2014, because some Senate races haven't been called yet — shows that though the electorate's midterm judgments against Obama have been brutal, they are not really unprecedented:

But the truest answer I can give to the question of what the voters are saying is: I don't know. And I'm not even sure the question makes sense.

Who "the voters" are changes election-to-election, and one of the primary contributors to the swings seems to be that a more Democratic group of "the voters" turn out in presidential elections and a more Republican group of "the voters" turns out in midterm elections and this seems to be happening regardless of what's going on in the economy.

Another way of putting this: The 2014 electorate looked a lot more like the 2010 electorate than like the 2012 electorate even though the 2014 economy looks a lot more like the 2012 economy than the 2010 economy.

Which isn't to say that Leonhardt is wrong that a middle-class tax cut is a good idea right now, or even that slow wage growth is putting pressure on American politics. I'm just skeptical it's driving elections in a very clear way.