For months we were told that this was the “Seinfeld election”—a race about nothing. And most pundits also seemed to think that despite the clearly favorable terrain for Republicans in the Senate, this would not be a wave election along the lines of the big Democratic victory of 2006 and the GOP landslide of 2010. Both assumptions were wrong. The 2014 midterms were most definitely about something and that something was dissatisfaction with President Obama that created yet another historic wave.
By the time the dust settles after the Louisiana Senate runoff, it’s likely the Republicans will have won a 54-seat Senate majority, increased their stranglehold in the House to a level unseen since before World War Two, and picked up several governorships, including some in deep blue states like Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maryland.
This was a surprise for a number of reasons, chief of which was that the polls were mostly wrong. Last week I wrote about the complaints of liberals that polls showing the election as a virtual tie were skewed in favor of the Republicans because they were undercounting Hispanics and other minorities. But in fact, as political stat guru Nate Silver points out on his FiveThirtyEight blog, the polls actually had a pro-Democrat bias ranging from 4 to 12 points in states around the country.
But once we set aside the arguments about how and why the predictions were off, three things must be acknowledged:
1. There should be no doubt that this election must be considered a wave election in very much the same category as 2006 and 2010.
2. The reason for the wave was a broad dissatisfaction with President Obama.
3. The size and scope of the GOP victory and the failure of the Democrats to replicate the Obama coalitions that won in 2008 and 2012 should shake their confidence that it can be easily reconstructed in 2016 for Hillary Clinton.
The reason why so many people doubted it would be a wave had to do with the fact that congressional Republicans had negative favorability ratings that were even worse than the terrible poll numbers given President Obama. But those who assumed that these two factors would, at best, cancel each other out forgot that it’s the president who runs the country and must bear the responsibility for government dysfunction, not a divided Congress.
Examining the state-by-state results, we see almost across the board that Democrats underperformed when compared to 2012. Races that were supposed to be neck and neck like those in Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, and Georgia all turned out to be a near or actual GOP landslide. They will try to put this down to the problems of getting their voters out for a midterm but this underestimates their problems.
The president won in 2012 with better than 50 percent of the vote. But with his popularity ratings down to approximately 40 percent, the only way to understand the results is to realize that approximately one in five of his past supporters were so disillusioned with his performance and either stayed home on Tuesday or voted for Republicans. This happened in spite of the Democrats’ vaunted ground game that was supposed to compensate for the drawbacks of a second term president’s doldrums and add two to three points to their totals.
While it is true that overall turnout was down when compared to the last presidential election, in many states, the number of African-Americans who voted met the Democrats’ expectations. If young people, women, and Hispanics didn’t follow suit, it’s not just because the midterms are better suited to Republicans but because the leader of the Democratic Party has largely lost the faith of many of those who swept him to office on a near-messianic hope and change campaign. Though the New York Times is already telling us that the president is merely irritated with the results and doesn’t regard it as a repudiation of his presidency, that is the only reasonable conclusion to draw from this election.
Finally, the extent of the Republican victory debunks the Democrats’ pre-election sour grapes arguments that contended that even a loss in 2014 wouldn’t impact their ability to win again in the next presidential year in 2016.
It is true that Democrats have excelled in presidential years when compared to midterms in the last two such cycles. But those Democratic waves in 2008 and 2012 were mostly the function of the historic candidacies of Obama and not necessarily a reflection of the party’s appeal when he wasn’t on the ballot.
The ability of Republicans to be competitive and to even win governorships in blue states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois and purple states like Wisconsin also shows that the GOP ground game has caught up to that of the Democrats. This also undermines assumptions that Republicans don’t have the ability to expand their map in 2016 with the right candidate at the top of their ticket.
So long as the president remained popular it was possible for Democrats to assume that demography would determined the destiny of future elections. But unhappiness with Obama cut the legs out of the president’s coalition and sent a message that his putative Democratic successor shouldn’t be confident about replicating his 2012 numbers when she runs for president. In that sense, this year’s anti-Obama wave shakes the foundation of the liberal media’s conventional wisdom about the political balance of power. Republicans will have plenty of opportunities to both help or hurt their cause in the next two years based on their performance in Congress. But heading into the 2016 campaign — which starts now — a midterm election that was both a wave and very much about something shows that the supposedly permanent Democratic advantage in national elections may already have started to disappear.