As I mull over the 2014 midterm elections, I have been thinking along two lines. First, is this going to be a “micro-election,” a Tip O’Neill-style “all politics is local” election? Or will this be more of a “macro-election,” a wave election that pushes forward the candidates of one party and pulls down the other party’s candidates? If it’s a wave election, which party will be the beneficiary and which the victim? Will we see a wave like those that benefited Democrats in 1958, 1964, 1974, 2006, and 2008, or one like those that helped Republicans in 1966, 1980, 1994, and 2010? In those kinds of wave elections, it was as if the Star Wars “force” was with one side’s candidates, winning elections that normally wouldn’t have been won, and was against the other side, defeating candidates that normally would have won, or won more easily.
A micro-election is the more normal outcome, in which each individual House, Senate, and gubernatorial election is stovepiped, dependent upon the voting patterns and history of that district or state; the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and campaigns; money; local issues; and other factors. If 2014 turns out to be more of a wave election, this outcome would involve a more overarching, nationwide dynamic. Will Republican problems from 2012 simply persist into 2014? Is it possible that the Republican brand remains damaged among minority, women, and self-described moderate voters, and that the strongest GOP contenders decline to run in key races (or if they do choose to run, that they still won’t win their primaries)? Or will we see the kinds of problems that normally plague second-term presidencies crop up again and with the traditional results? In five of the six post-World War II midterm elections that occurred during a president’s second term, the party in the White House has lost substantial numbers of House and/or Senate seats. A new president’s novelty has generally worn off by this time. The passion, energy, and focus is usually gone, first-term chickens come home to roost, or negative things happen to presidents in their second terms, be they unpopular wars, scandals, or economic downturns.
Several factors provide clues to determine which of these themes might end up dominating the 2014 election. I outlined five metrics to watch in the June 4, 2013, “Off to the Races” column: presidential job approval, consumer confidence, attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act, favorable and unfavorable attitudes toward the Democratic and Republican parties, and finally, the generic congressional ballot test.
Although it is far too soon to make any conclusions about what kind of election we will see in 2014, with just over 15 months to go before the midterm balloting, today’s environment seems to suggest that both of the overarching dynamics described before could take place. Republicans have made no progress in improving their party’s standing with the electorate overall, or for that matter with minorities, women, young voters, and those self-described moderates. Social and cultural issues continue to plague their party among many young and some women voters. Intransigence among conservatives in the party seems to be preventing the GOP congressional leadership from trying to lance the immigration boil. Even deeper cuts in discretionary domestic spending are providing considerable cannon fodder for Democratic media consultants, who are preparing ads for next year. Not to mention that a government shutdown would be considerably more likely to damage Republicans than Democrats.
On the other hand, voters increasingly seem to have hit the mute button on President Obama. They are no longer listening to him, and his approval numbers seem to be dropping by about a point every three weeks. This does not seem to be because of any of the so-called scandals that got Republicans so worked up during the winter and spring, but more because voters have a perception of Obama as a not particularly effective leader. They tend to give him points for having good intentions on most issues, but they see him as ineffectual. Add to that growing concern over the Affordable Care Act, with only a third of Americans telling pollsters that it will help the nation’s health care situation, and less than a quarter who believe that it will help their own family’s health care. While retiring Sen. Max Baucus referred to the implementation of the ACA as a “train wreck,” other Democratic members are remaining silent. From what we can tell, members of the president’s party are experiencing growing anxiety as they go back to their states and districts and are confronted with constituents who are considerably less than enthusiastic about the new law.
Mush all these factors together, and there is a chance they just might cancel each other out. The combination could also simply create a turbulent situation that does not uniformly benefit either party but creates pitfalls for both Democrats and Republicans alike.
This article appears in the July 30, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Surfing a Wave?.