7 Takeaways from the U.S. Midterm Elections
November 10, 2014 1 Comment
The 2014 U.S. mid-term elections are being portrayed as a huge win for Republicans and a stinging defeat for Barack Obama and the Democrats. But closer analysis shows other significant factors at play that helped determine the outcome of this election.
- House Gains
It is an established fact that the party of the sitting president almost always loses seats in the mid-term elections. In the last 19 mid-term elections (since 1938) the president’s party has lost an average of 4 seats in the Senate and 30 seats in the House. At the last report, the Democrats have lost 12 seats in the House with 7 still undecided. That is a fairly small number.
Of course, the Republicans already had a sizeable majority in the House so there were not too many additional contested seats for them to pick up. Thanks to extensive gerrymandering after the 2010 elections, 85% of the seats in the House were considered to be “safe” for Republicans.
In the 2012 election gerrymandering meant that although Democrats received 1.4 million more votes than republican candidates in the House elections, the Democrats secured only 201 seats compared to the 234 seats that went to Republicans.
Prior to the mid-term election, Lee Fang, a political researcher for Moyers and Company, forecast that
As the results from this year roll in, we see a similar dynamic [to 2012]. Republican gerrymandering means Democratic voters are packed tightly into single districts, while Republicans are spread out in such a way to translate into the most congressional seats for the GOP.
- Senate Gains
The real contest, of course was for control of the Senate. If one looks the map of Senate seats up for grabs this election cycle one immediately notices that the seats are heavily concentrated in the American Midwest and the South – traditionally very conservative areas of the country.
Absent from this mix are many of the Pacific and Western and the Northeastern states which tend to be more liberal. In other words, the majority of Senate seats to be decided on were predisposed to go to Republicans regardless of the candidates involved.
So far the Republicans have picked up 7 seats, with 2 more still to be decided. The Louisiana run-off is almost sure to go the Republican candidate, so let’s call it a gain of 8 for sure. How does this compare to other years?
For the president’s party the loss was as just great as that for Bill Clinton in 1994 and for Ronald Reagan in 1986, but it still pales in comparison to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s loss of 13 Senate seats in 1958 and Harry Truman’s loss on 11 seats in 1946.
The expected wave of Republican victories has been touted as a tsunami by some political pundits. It was certainly a victory wave. But a major tsunami? Hardly. Both parties have undergone more sweeping changes in other years.
- Lower Voter turnout
It is an established fact that voter turnout is much lower in midterm elections than in presidential elections – as much as 10 to 15 percent lower. In recent midterm elections less that 40 percent of the eligible population has voted. [Steven S. Smith, The American Congress, Cambridge University Press (2013), p. 86.] This year it was only about 36 percent.
Of those who voted, 70% were white Americans who, more than any other demographic group, tend to vote Republican. Since 2010 many Republican-held states have enacted restrictive voter ID laws that have been shown to disproportionally exclude poor, black and Hispanic voters. [See the very informative interactive posting from PBS’s Frontline website: Why Doesn’t Everyone Have a Voter ID?] Members of these are groups that are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.
Did these voter restrictions affect the election results? The data is still being analyzed, but according to the Brennan Center for Justice the number of voters impacted by these new restrictions exceeded the margin of victory in close races for the senate and state governors in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Florida.
- Lower voter motivation
In both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections Obama received his strongest support from young people, women, blacks and Hispanics. Those demographic groups were noticeably absent from this year’s mid-term election.
Many have speculated that this was because of disappointment with President Obama’s performance over the past 6 years. There is certainly some truth to this.
Obama has not been able to get legislation passed through Congress to lessen the burden of student debt or raise the minimum wage, which affects many younger wage earners. He has been noticeably slow to speak out on women’s reproductive rights and equal pay issues for women. He has been remarkably silent on issues of racism, consistently trying to avoid “the race card.” And he has backed off sweeping immigration reform, an issue that is of great concern to Hispanic voters.
The president knows that if he presses for movement in any of these areas Republicans will attack him without mercy, and the entire Democratic Party will suffer as a result. So he has tried to steer a moderate (non-offensive) very “presidential” course. But it has not saved him or his party.
The campaign ads in his election cycle have attacked Obama at every turn, accusing him, not of being ineffective or weak as a president, but of being dangerous, dictatorial, and un-American. He has been vilified along with every one of his early accomplishments – especially the Affordable Care Act.
Anything connected with Obama has become poisoned, and Democratic candidates in this election cycle knew it. They were forced to distance themselves from him. In close contests they sent the message that they didn’t want him around. Once again negative campaigning proved to be more effective than any positive message could ever hope to be.
Fear is a powerful motivator. It brought out the conservative base of voters who felt they had to stop Obama and his agenda at all costs, and it put the Democratic candidates on the defensive.
- Biased Reporting
The Republican attack machine effectively defined the message in this election cycle, and the Democrats were unable to get traction with any message of their own. In an article on The Hill, Democratic strategist Doug Thornell is quoted as complaining,
“Over the last year Democrats’ message on the economy, fighting for the middle class, and Republican dysfunction either hasn’t broken through or has been drowned out by outside events” [most recently by ISIS and the ebola scare].
That started me thinking. Why didn’t the Democrats’ message find traction with American voters? Polls have shown that the top issues among all voters are (in decreasing order): Jobs, health care, the budget deficit, education, domestic security, and immigration.
The perennial Republican favourites of abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control don’t even make the list. So why weren’t Democratic candidates able to rally voter support on these priorities? Why didn’t their message get through?
The answer, I believe, lies in how much media coverage was given to positive assessments of these issues and how much coverage was given to negative coverage or to other issues instead (neglecting these issues completely).
Conservatives repeatedly claim that there is a “liberal bias” in the media. But if the national media really does have a liberal bias, the airwaves should have been filled with this positive message favouring the administration and the Democratic candidates.
I’m not talking about campaign ads here. I’m talking about real news coverage. But I strongly suspect that this was not the dominant message. I suspect that one didn’t have to search very hard to find an outpouring of negative assessments of Obama’s policies and the core issues identified in the Democratic platform. That pretty much squelches claims of the media’s “liberal” bias.
- Opposition to Obama
Finally, the following question needs to be asked: Were these mid-term elections really about voting for Republican candidates or voting against Obama?
In Canada we have seen our Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper skilfully destroy two successive opposition leaders by quickly establishing a negative narrative that defined them in the media and that they were never able to get out from under. It destroyed their leadership ability and the electorate’s confidence in them, and ultimately it destroyed both their political careers.
Republicans have been doing this from day one with Obama. They have denounced everything he has attempted to do, they have obstructed his agenda at every turn, they have made it nearly impossible to get anything done, and then have criticized him for not accomplishing anything.
Republicans have aggressively defined the narrative about Obama and he has not been able to shake it. Even his fellow Democrats had to run from it in their most recent campaigns. Their tactic succeeded.
It has been widely reported in the media that Obama’s approval rating has now “plummeted” and “plunged to new lows.” Yet when one averages all the various polls one finds that his overall approval rate fell from 42.6% on January 1, 2014 to (wait for it) 42% on October 30, 2014. That’s 0.6% – hardly a precipitous decline.
Obama’s lowest approval rating was 39%. This, by the way, is still higher than the lowest rating of any president since John F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan once hit 35% and George W. Bush once hit just 19%. Nevertheless, the narrative has become firmly established, and many Americans believe that Obama is more unpopular than any previous president.
- A Cautious Warning for Conservatives
Narratives, once established become hard to shake. But here is another narrative for the Republicans to consider as they prepare to lead the House and the Senate for the next two years.
According to a Rasmussen Reports national survey published on October 28, 2014 only 8% of likely U.S. voters thought that Congress was doing a good or excellent job, while 62% rated Congress’ performance as poor. A separate Ramsussen poll published on August 27, 2014, showed that John Boehner remains Congress’ most unpopular leader. Those perceptions will be hard to shake.
Are we to expect that this (until now) “do-nothing” obstructionist Congress will actually decide to start governing constructively? It seems to me very unlikely that the Republican majority of both houses of Congress will try to reach a compromise with Obama to get their legislation passed into law. Instead I expect they will seize their newfound majority to pass a host of legislation that they know Obama will not approve of just to see him veto it. And, of course, they will loudly criticize him for doing so.
Until now harry Reid has acted as a “shield” for Obama in keeping unpopular legislation from passing through the Senate, thus deflecting attention away from the president himself. Now Obama will be much more exposed. I expect the Republicans to make the most of it. Conservative House members will certainly be clamouring to see new versions of the stalled bills they had previously approved now pass through the Senate.
What is going to be Republican members’ highest priority – to work with Obama in getting legislation passed, or to finally “take Obama down”? I suspect the latter.
Here is a short list of what we might see happen in the next session of Congress:
- The Tea Party will flex its muscles once again. House members will renew their demands that Obamacare be repealed and/or defunded. They can’t afford to abandon this tactic, as to do so would enrage their conservative base and expose them to being ‘primaried’ out of the next election
- Impeachment proceedings will begin against Obama on some contrived charge (abusing his executive powers, perhaps). There will be no legal case for these charges, but Republicans have trumpeted this cause enough that they will be unable to back away from it. Their reputations are at stake.
- Factions will emerge challenging the leadership of both John Boehner in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate. Both will survive, but it will leave the party membership fractured.
- Certain prominent members (Ted Cruz and others) will push their own agendas as they seek to increase their profiles in preparation for a run for the President’s office in 2016. This may conflict with the agendas of the House and Senate leaders causing additional tensions.
The perception of serious dysfunction in Congress is likely to continue over the next two years. Blame can fall in either of two ways. If Obama gets blamed for “obstinacy” and “obstructionism” – well, he is on his way out anyway and the Democrats will get to promote a fresh face and a different approach. But if the sitting members of Congress are the ones judged to be obstinate and obstructive, they will be the ones facing an angry electorate in 2016.
The 2016 election will not be nearly as easy for the Republicans to win. That large voter base that stayed home from this year’s election will be out again to vote for a new president. And Republicans are not likely to gain any more traction with younger voters, women, and racial minorities that they did last time.
The Senate seats in play this time were disproportionately from conservative states. Next time the West Coast and New England States will favour Democratic wins. And so far polls show Hillary Clinton still leading any potential Republican nominee by double digits.
The significant gains in the 2014 election were sweet for the Republicans, but they will no doubt be quite short-lived.
Credits: Courtney Collins, The Associated Press, Postmedia News; Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters; Dan Wasserman, Tribune Media Services