A week after Election Day, we’ve had time not only to look at the returns and reach certain conclusions, but to begin knocking down some very questionable interpretations. Here are a few:
Republicans won a tsunami victory that portends a big win in 2016
Uh, no, probably not. The GOP victory slightly overperformed (if at all) what you’d expect from a combination of several factors: a “sixth-year” election with a Democrat in the White House, a pro-Republican midterm turnout pattern, a wildly pro-Republican landscape for members of Congress (especially senators), and a strongly “wrong track” public opinion profile reinforced by negative perceptions of the economy.
The composition of the electorate was an awful lot like 2010: 75 percent white (77 percent white in 2010, 72 percent in 2012); 37 percent 60 and over (32 percent in 2010, 25 percent in 2012); 12 percent 30 and under (12 percent in 2010, 19 percent in 2012). The party splits in various demographics also strongly resembled 2010; the better Republican numbers in pro-Democratic groups (viz. 36 percent among Latinos in 2014, 38 percent in 2010, 27 percent in 2012) reinforces the impression that more conservative voters turned out across the board. (Since nobody really thinks Republicans surged from 26 percent to 50 percent among Asian-Americans since 2012, it’s likely one or both numbers for that group are skewed).
So we’ve now seen three consecutive “swings” in turnout patterns and results that reinforce the “two electorates” hypothesis suggesting a structural Republican advantage in midterms and a Democratic advantage in presidential elections. Since the close alignment of the two parties with the segments of the electorate most likely (Republican with their older white voter base) and least likely (Democrats with their younger and minority voter base) to participate in midterms emerged in 2008, nobody’s “broken serve” yet. It could happen in 2016, of course, but nothing that occurred last Tuesday appears to make that more or less likely than it was on Monday.
Part of the illusion of a last-minute “tsunami,” of course, was created by a systematic overestimation of the Democratic vote by polls, amounting to 4 percent according to Nate Silver and 5 percent according to Sam Wang. In 2010 it was Republicans who benefited from a polling misfire.
The Democratic GOTV operation was a failure
It’s true the DSCC’s Bannock Street Project did not reshape the midterm electorate and produce victories, and national turnout was at the lowest rate since 1942. But turnout was up from 2010 levels in most states with competitive Senate races (as a percentage of 2010 vote): by 12.9 percent in Louisiana; 9.9 percent in Arkansas; 6.8 percent in New Hampshire; 6.6 percent in Alaska; 4.7 percent in Colorado; 4.2 percent in Kentucky; 3.8 percent in North Carolina; 2.6 percent in Kansas; and 1.4 percent in Arkansas. Georgia was the biggest disappointment, with 13 percent fewer votes cast in 2014 as compared to 2010, perhaps indicating that allegations of voter registration applications being buried by the Secretary of State’s office ought to get a second look.
A “but for” test would seem to indicate that overall Bannock Street kept turnout patterns from being even worse than they might have been. But to the extent it was an experiment, it needs tweaking, and it may simply be that not voting in midterms (particularly for young people) is too entrenched a habit to be significantly changed by any GOTV program. Republicans claims that Democratic GOTV efforts were canceled out by their own more impressive measures should also be examined, along with the suspicion that both parties’ early voting programs didn’t really add that many new voters.
Democrats should finally write off the south
The defeats of Kay Hagan, Mark Pryor and Michelle Nunn, along with the projected defeat of Mary Landrieu in a December runoff and the near-death-experience of Mark Warner have fed perennial talk that Democrats are wasting their time in the former Confederate States.
It may be true that Democrats will henceforth struggle in midterms in much (though not necessarily all) of the region, and that the decline in ticket-splitting means outperforming national tickets among white voters is becoming a thing of the past. But in presidential years, there’s no reason Virginia (carried twice by Obama), North Carolina (once), Georgia (where the nonwhite percentage of the population is creeping ever upward) and of course such essentially non-southern states as Florida (carried twice by Obama) cannot remain competitive for the foreseeable future. The trend lines are actually positive, with the realignment towards Republicans of southern white voters reaching its point of diminishing returns.
I’d argue what’s really obsolete is the get-as-far-to-the-right-as-possible Blue Dog model for southern Democratic success, epitomized by Rep. John Barrow (D-GA), who finally lost this year. Absent some strong, specifically partisan anti-Republican trend in a particular year, southern white conservative voters see no reason to vote Democratic any more, and each year their return becomes more unlikely. But ascending elements of the southern electorate, including transplants and knowledge workers, continue to be a ripe target for Democrats.
‘Populism’ is the cure-all/won’t work for Democrats
Nothing was more ubiquitous in Democratic campaigns this year than support for such “populist” economic themes as a higher minimum wage, which polled well nearly everywhere and sometimes split Republicans. But even in states where voters approved minimum wage ballot initiatives, Democratic statewide candidates did not benefit, leading some observers to conclude “populist” appeals to reduce inequality might be less effective than a pro-growth message while others countered that a sharper populist message was needed when the Democratic Party holds the While House and is deemed responsible for the economy.
This is a dilemma for Democrats that goes back at least to the Clinton years, and will be partly ameliorated by the imminent departure from office of President Obama, making it easier for his successor as Democratic nominee to make 2016 a “two futures” choice of economic policies rather than a referendum on a status quo still suffering from the mistakes of the Bush administration. I’d personally argue that what Democrats most need isn’t “less” or “more” populism, but a more comprehensive economic message that explains how income equality is critical to growth and offers not just one but various ways to boost paychecks. Princeton professor Alan Blinder has made a pretty good start.
Meanwhile, a separate argument is that some Democrats spent too much time on “culture war” issues or talking about a “war on women.” I’d just note that the single biggest difference between the 2010 and 2014 votes were that Democrats won women last week by four points and lost them by a point in 2010. Something went right.
Fundamentals explain everything
I obviously agree such “fundamentals” as turnout patterns and midterm dynamics and the “presidential referendum” factor and demographics explain most of what happened last Tuesday. But sometimes candidates and campaigns trump everything. It’s very unlikely that Joni Ernst would have won comfortably had Bruce Braley not been filmed telling out-of-state trial lawyers he was their vehicle for keeping Chuck Grassley, “an Iowa farmer,” away from the Judiciary Committee gavel. Maryland’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown ran a sluggish and overconfident campaign, just like Maryland LG Kathleen Kennedy Townsend did eight years ago when she was upset by a Republican. And Mark Udall lost in 2014 while Michael Bennet won in 2010 largely because Cory Gardner was a helluva better candidate than Ken Buck. At the margins of every election, anything can and does happen.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.