2010 was the year of what?

Decades from now, Wikipedia or its successor will have an entry for the “Election of 2010.”

What will it say?

All year long, the pundits have tried to christen this election as one thing or another. It’s just something that pundits and political scientists do every two years. Early on, 2010 was “The Year of the Tea Party.” That really hasn’t stuck, and since then there has been a string of other proposed monikers, none of which concisely describe exactly what happened. It’s still an election year in search of a snappy name.

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The Tea Party label looked like a good bet early on, when insurgents were picking off some big-time insiders in primary battles. But because so few Tea Party-inspired candidacies ultimately succeeded in November, it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to allow them to have naming rights for the entire cycle. You have to finish strong in order to win the prize, and the Tea Party didn’t close enough deals when all the votes were counted.

The same can be said for Republican women. At a few moments during 2010, it looked like the GOP had nominated a historic gaggle of strong female candidates. But they, too, didn’t finish strong. While more than a half-dozen new Republican women were elected to the House, and another to the Senate, in addition to significant gubernatorial wins in several states, the even-higher-profile losses of Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell make it tough to label 2010 “The Year of GOP Women.” Close, but no victory ribbons.

Another stiff-arm is in order for the “Year of the Newcomer.” Closer examination of the record makes a better argument for “Year of the Retread.” An underreported factor in Republican congressional successes is the role that “career politicians” played in the GOP resurgence. Unlike 1994, when the revolution was led by a host of genuine outsiders, the charge this time was headed by seasoned and experienced lawmakers, typically with long careers in state legislatures. The gubernatorial races saw the re-emergence of veritable “blasts from the past,” Jerry Brown in California and Terry Branstad in Iowa. Both hailed from the last century, not just the past decade. Some polling I did in Iowa more than a year ago suggested this was coming. When my interviewers asked voters to choose between a seasoned politician with proven experience and a fresh-faced newcomer with innovative ideas, the old-timer won by a 2-to-1 margin. In these challenging times, “fresh” was not selling like “aged.” Day-old bread never had such a heyday.

It also wasn’t the “Year of Republican Enthusiasm” when turnout push came to shove. Four to six weeks before the election, it genuinely appeared that elephants were going to charge into America’s polling places while donkeys grazed doe-eyed in the pastures of apathy. That didn’t come to pass, except in the South. I don’t know whether the specter of Republicans dominating the turnout contest scared Democrats straight to the polls, or whether Democrats are just slow starters who finish as strong as Secretariat, but my late polls showed no particular enthusiasm advantage for either party, except in Texas and some other parts of Dixie where the GOP surged without parallel.

The best names for describing the larger subtext of 2010 must, it seems to me, speak to the dominance of negative consumer sentiment and a rotten economy. I don’t think that declaring the past 12 months the “Year of the Wrong Track” or “Year of the Jobs Issue” are snappy enough labels to stick, but those names capture a lot of what was going on. Voters most everywhere tried to sort through the candidates and messages to find the best means of creating new jobs and protecting existing ones.

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for 
gubernatorial campaigns in four states.