With less than a week remaining until Election Day 2014, there are plenty of races still too close to call. But even without knowing who will win every race, we can already write the post-mortem for the 2014 election.
It’s not breaking news to declare that we expect little change in the House of Representatives. After all, out of the 435 House seats, the Cook Political Report rates only 18 as truly competitive races and just 19 others as somewhat competitive; it is hard to imagine results that will change the Republican dominance in that chamber.
In the Senate, Republicans will certainly pick up at least two seats—West Virginia and Montana—but it could be as many as 10 as a number of races remain too close to call. Meanwhile, gubernatorial races around the country are trending in surprising directions, with the Democrat fighting tooth and nail in true blue Massachusetts and the Republican looking vulnerable in deep red Kansas.
Whether all the races swing to one party or the other, or—as is most likely—we end up with a confusing muddle of results, I’m certain that both sides will proclaim the results a positive sign for their party’s future. In fact, there seems little reason to wait until next week to start looking at the parties’ top three messages about why their side had the greater successes on November 4.
Pre-Election Post Mortem—as told by Republicans: GOP ideals are sweeping the country.
- What Republicans will say: The American people have sent a clear message that they reject the president, Obamacare, and Democrats’ socialist agenda. Congressional Republicans have a mandate to stand strong against the president’s platform over the next two years.
What the results actually mean: In addition to the odd interpretation of what socialism is, there will be no mandate on either side. Whether voters are currently supporting the Democratic or Republican, Lincoln Park’s latest national poll of 1,000 voters shows that about a quarter of voters say their vote is more about opposition to the other candidate than a strong preference for their own candidate. Among self-identified Independents, the percentage of anti-voters is even higher and is particularly strong when the Independent is voting for a Republican.
Nearly half (47 percent) of those Independents who plan to vote for a Republican describe their choice as more a vote against the Democrat rather than for the Republican. A win is a win, but these results are not exactly a rousing endorsement for the GOP brand.
Furthermore, 73 percent of likely voters say that if the Republicans do win enough seats to be in the majority, they should work with Obama, while just 27 percent said the Republicans in the majority should stand on principle. Even among those who say they plan to vote for a Republican for Congress, 39 percent said if Republicans win the majority, they should work with Obama. That’s hardly a blessing for focusing solely on passing partisan legislation.
The two Senate seats Republicans seem sure to flip—West Virginia and Montana—are already red states in which Obama won no more than 41 percent of the vote in 2012; it was more surprising that these states still had Democratic senators than that they are likely to lose them in 2014. Taking over those states will not be an indication of a new sweep of Republican influence, but rather a move to the current norm in those states.
- What Republicans will say: Winning races in blue states bodes well for Republicans in the 2016 Presidential election.
What the results actually mean: Statehouse victories in Massachusetts, Colorado, or Connecticut will be proof of well-run campaigns and strong Republican and/or weak Democratic candidates, but they give no indication of Republican chances in the upcoming race for the White House.
Current estimates of the electorate in 2016 suggest that 30 percent of voters will be racial and ethnic minorities. If recent trends hold up, three out of four minority voters will vote for the Democratic candidate, at which point the Democrat will need to attract just 37 percent of the white vote to win the presidency. Considering President Obama was able to win an even higher percentage—39 percent of white voters—national demographic trends weigh in heavily on the side of the Democratic candidate. Republican gubernatorial wins, even in blue states, are indeed evidence of Republican successes, but are not a forecast for how the party will fare in 2016.
Said in another way, unless the Republican Party can address their performance troubles among minority voters, whatever happens in 2014 is completely meaningless when it comes to what will happen in 2016, regardless of who the candidates are.
- What Republicans will say: Election results throughout the country show that Americans stand with Republicans on the issues.
What the results actually mean: Besides polling that refutes this premise, this year voters in Kansas are being given the chance to pass judgment on a pure experiment in Republican policy implementation, their response hardly seems to be a resounding “yes!” Over the past three years, Kansas Republican Governor Sam Brownback has conducted what he called a “real-life experiment” in conservative policy by cutting taxes and spending, reducing government jobs, denying welfare applications, as well as executing other Republican-espoused policies. Now, the Republican governor who conducted this experiment is trailing his Democratic opponent in the polls, despite his presiding over a state that President Obama lost by 22 percentage points. If somehow Brownback manages to eke out a narrow victory, the tightness of the race indicates that even in such a strongly Republican state, voters are less than impressed with the results of consistently implemented Republican policies. Strange to think that the country is universally embracing Republican stances on issues, while a deep red state is rejecting a Republican Governor for implementing conservative ideals.
Pre-Election Post Mortem—as told by Democrats: Our candidates over performed, considering the circumstances.
- What Democrats will say: Democrats faced a tough headwind in 2014: But despite [insert from the list below], Democrats did better than expected:
- The president’s party never fares well in midterm elections.
- Redistricting prevents the will of the people from being heard.
- Voter suppression efforts have turned off and turned away many minority voters.
What the results actually mean: While there are some kernels of truth to these points, none of this information is new or surprising. Certainly voters’ attitudes towards President Obama (47 percent unfavorable in our national poll and as high as 52% in other recent polls) are a major handicap for Democrats running in 2014, but Democratic Party operatives and the candidates themselves were well aware of the landscape going in. Falling back on these reasons post-election will be more about making excuses than providing explanations.
Congressional districts are here to stay (indeed previous research by Lincoln Park Strategies demonstrates that self-sorting is more to blame than the redistricting process); and minority voters tend to turn out in lower numbers for midterms whether or not states are enacting new voter ID laws. These pretexts are akin to a football team complaining they lost because the opposing team was bigger and faster. Yes, it might be true, but you knew this going in. Democrats need to face the reality of the current circumstances, and adjust their game plan.
- What Democrats will say: Democrats lost some Senate seats, but even in a number of states that voted overwhelmingly against President Obama in 2012, the races were tight until the very end. The fact that Democrats can even play in these states shows they are in a strong position going forward.
What the results actually mean: Democrats do in fact seem poised to lose key states that they have held for years—West Virginia and Montana—and the races are not even close. They are also fighting tight races in states Obama won in 2012 (New Hampshire and Colorado), which indicates that Democrats are not in fact over performing across the board, as they might like to think.
While the demographic advantage will work in the party’s favor during presidential years, they need to be able to play consistently in more states and regularly win in some red states, not just come close. Otherwise, the Democrats will become the permanent minority in the Senate, as they have in the House.
If Democrats can’t break the boom and bust cycle of presidential vs non-presidential elections, they will continue to be at the mercy of the year. Republicans have huge demographic issues, but if Democrats can’t address the problems they have attracting white voters, consistently holding on to the Senate and House will be difficult at best.
- What Democrats will say: This election year could have been much worse for Democrats. With five formerly Democratic Senate seats open (mostly in red states) and with six Democratic incumbents vulnerable, 2014 could have been a bloodbath. The fact that Republican candidates ended up being vulnerable (and possibly losing) in states such as North Carolina and Kansas, and that Democratic fundraising outpaced that of Republicans, show the Democrats are truly the stronger, more popular party.
What the results actually mean: While this year certainly may not end up being as bad as Democrats expected going in, our polling shows that voters are far from embracing the Democratic message. The average voter agrees with Congressional Democrats’ approach to the issues just 40 percent of the time, and among Independents, it’s significantly lower (29 percent). Even Democrats only support their own party’s tactics 60 percent of the time. (Republicans, stop laughing—your numbers are even worse: 55 percent).
Rather than addressing this negativity, Democrats seem hell-bent on running against Republicans as opposed to running on a positive agenda for the party. Outside of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, campaigns have almost universally focused on how bad the Republicans are going back to at least 2006. While this strategy has worked to a degree, if Democrats want proactively to attract voters rather than simply be the “at-least-we’re-not-the-Republicans” party, they will need to develop a positive vision for the party and the future that resonates with voters. The current line of attack is losing traction quickly.
The parties have become predictable at best and given the fact that little is being done in Washington these days, it is hard to envision things changing in the near future. But here is to hoping we are wrong.
In the meantime, we can be certain of one thing: the post-election takeaway for both parties will not match reality.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.