Election 2014: A GOP Wave (Or Was It?)

Ken AshfordElection 2014Leave a Comment

So what happened? In retrospect, it was a fairly familiar midterm story. A ruling party went into a campaign with an unpopular President and a discontented electorate, and, on an Election Day characterized by low turnout among the general population, and by intense excitement among activists in the opposition party, it got trounced. What was surprising was how long it took for this story to emerge—right up until yesterday.

How dissatisfied was the electorate? According to the national exit poll, fifty-nine per cent of voters said that they were angry or disappointed with the Obama Administration. Seven in ten said that the economy is in bad shape, and just one in three said it is improving. Sixty-five per cent of respondents said that the country was seriously off-track. That last figure is twelve points higher than the equivalent finding in the exit poll taken during the 2012 Presidential election.

This toxic environment created the conditions for a classic midterm backlash against an unpopular President. Something very similar happened to George W. Bush, in November, 2006. What confused the picture this year was the strong and well-financed campaigns that Hagan and several other embattled Democrats ran, which allowed them to outperform the fundaments up until the last few days of the campaign, when things started to crater.

All across the country, it was enough to sweep Republicans home. Naturally, the focus was on the Senate. But, as Scott Walker’s victory indicated, the G.O.P. also did very well in gubernatorial elections. In Florida, Rick Scott scraped by the ex-governor (and party turncoat) Charlie Crist, who had been leading in the polls for much of the year. In Michigan, Rick Snyder handily defeated his Democratic challenger, Mark Schauer. Even Kansas’s Sam Brownback, an irresponsible tax-cutter and budget-slasher who was, at one stage, so unpopular that it looked like he might be run out of the state, got reëlected.

The G.O.P. also scored some big pick-ups in governor’s races. In Maryland, the Republican businessman Larry Hogan came from well behind in the polls to defeat Anthony Brown, the state’s lieutenant governor. In Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman who was one of Bill Clinton’s principal tormentors during the Whitewater saga and the subsequent impeachment trial, emerged victorious. About the only good news for Democrats in governors’ races was a pick-up in Pennsylvania, where the kitchen-cabinet magnate Tom Wolf defeated Tom Corbett, the Republican incumbent, and in Connecticut, with what looked like a hold, as Dannel Malloy claimed victory over Tom Foley. (In the early hours of Wednesday, Foley was still refusing to concede defeat.) In Colorado, with ninety-two per cent of the vote counted as of this writing, the Democratic incumbent John Hickenlooper was running slightly ahead of the Republican Bob Beauprez.

And yet, despite all of this, it would be premature to call the 2014 election a major turning point. There’s little evidence that the country has taken a big swing toward the Republican Party’s ideology or policy positions, or, even, that it has any great liking for the G.O.P. The same exit poll that showed fifty-nine per cent of respondents were dissatisfied or angry with the Obama Administration found that sixty-one per cent of respondents were angry or disappointed with Republican leaders in Congress. It found that fifty-three per cent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party and that fifty-six per cent have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party.

As for policy, the exit poll showed that the economy remains the biggest issue, by far, in voters’ minds. Jobs and wages are what people care about most, and, in both of these areas, they tended to support Democratic positions. One quick example: at the same time as they were electing a Republican senator and a Republican governor, the voters of Arkansas approved, by a two-to-one margin, a raise in the state’s minimum wage.

We also shouldn’t forget that this was a midterm electorate, not a Presidential-election electorate. According to the exit poll, the number of seniors who voted yesterday was twice as large as the number of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds.

In short, this was a big protest vote, and a big defeat for President Obama. To that extent, it was a big victory for the Republicans. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader-elect, earned his moment of glory. (“It’s time to turn this country around—and I will not let you down,” McConnell told a group of cheering supporters relatively early in the evening, following his thumping of Grimes.) But if a “wave election” is one that signifies important changes in the underlying dynamics of the American electorate, then this wasn’t a wave election.

I pretty much agree with Ezra Klein’s take: