The 4 November US midterm elections proved to be a “wave election,” with voter attitudes breaking significantly in favor of the Republican Party in the final weeks. But the implications for the future of US politics – and especially the 2016 national elections – are complex and do not necessarily favor the Republicans.
To be sure, the 4 November results were one-sided. Republicans picked up at least 8 Senate seats, and are favored in the 6 December run-off vote for one undetermined seat, in Louisiana. In the House of Representatives, Republicans gained well over a dozen seats, likely giving them more than they have held since the 1920s. Republicans also held on to governors’ offices in key presidential states like Florida and Wisconsin, while scoring big and surprising wins in Democrat strongholds like Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
(Despite the bad results for Democrats overall, good Democratic candidates who ran strong campaigns beat the trend. Many did so with strong positive message-driven ads that overcame the negative national mood. We were pleased that many GQR clients saw success on 4 November, including the re-election of Governor Maggie Hassan and Senator Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, the election of Gary Peters as a new Senator from Michigan, the election of Tom Wolf as Governor of Pennsylvania, the re-election of Mark Dayton as Governor of Minnesota, and the victory of an important referendum on gun safety in Washington State.)
Especially for those watching from abroad, the Democrats’ poor showing may seem somewhat surprising. The American economy has rebounded relatively steadily since President Obama took office in early 2009, at the depths of the “Great Recession”; and Obama has presided over the winding down of US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Yet four factors help explain why American voters rebuked Obama and his party in the midterm vote:
First, and most important, US voters are deeply dissatisfied with the economy. Our friend James Carville famously said during the 1992 election that “it’s the economy, stupid”; that remains true 22 years later. Despite a booming stock market and the addition of over 10 million jobs on Obama’s watch, real wages are not increasing. As a result, 49% of Americans believe that the country is still in a recession, and nearly two-thirds say they continue to suffer in various ways due to the downturn. On 4 November, exit polls show that 45% of voters cited the economy as the country’s chief challenge – nearly twice the level for any other issue.
Second, partly due to these economic frustrations and partly due to the poisonous and polarized political gridlock of the past six years, the US electorate was also voting in general terms against incumbents – which fell disproportionately on the Democrats. Only 1 in 5 say they trust the government in Washington. Ratings for the US Congress are so low that it seems only their own friends and family approve of their work. A range of measures show political polarization at its most intense levels in at least a century. For example, there is a 73 point gap on approval ratings of Obama between self-identified Democratic and Republican voters (78% and 5% approval, respectively) –the highest ever measured, and about 20 points higher than for either Presidents Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan.
Third, voters were expressing frustration with President Obama – even though he was not on the ballot. Obama’s job approval ratings, in the low-40s, were a continuing drag on Democratic performance throughout the cycle. A third of all those who went to the polls on 4 November – including 92% of all Republicans – said their vote was a verdict against Obama. Although Obama can claim a range of accomplishments, from the passage of his health care plan to his successful bailout of the auto industry, there is a pervasive sense that he has often failed to wield power and explain his agenda in a convincing manner.
Fourth, even though it was not a dominant issue, world events created an increasingly difficult backdrop for Obama and Democrats as Election Day approached. While only 13% of voters ultimately cited foreign policy as their top concern, events abroad during the final months of the campaign left many voters feeling increasingly insecure. The beheadings of two American journalists catapulted the threat posed by ISIS into public consciousness, and Obama’s initial response was shaky. The spreading Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the arrival of the first Ebola case on American soil in September, with missteps by various health officials, triggered a national public health panic. The world seemed threatening to many voters, and the country’s leaders often seemed to be sounding an uncertain note.
Beyond these four structural explanations, Democrats in some states suffered from the simple and enduring fact that the quality of campaigning makes a difference. This year the Republicans just had better candidates than in 2010, while the Democrats had worse candidates and more difficult electoral terrain. By contrast, many Democrats who had clear messages, big progressive ideas, and aggressive campaigns were able to withstand the Republican wave.
Signs that “the wave” may recede
The 2014 results were a major setback for Obama and his party. While midterm elections generally trend against the party of the sitting president, most two-term presidents have only suffered one “wave” midterm against their party, while Obama has now suffered two. Yet the implications for the future, and especially for the 2016 national elections, are much more mixed, with many signs that the 2014 wave may recede in the space of two years.
To start, the electorate in 2016 will be bigger and more Democratic-leaning. Historically low turnout hurt the Democrats this year, while the Republicans were highly motivated. The voters who stayed home this year – disproportionately young voters, minorities, single women, and those in households earning less than $50,000 – include some of the Democratic Party’s mostly loyal constituencies. For example, in 2012, voters under 39 years of age made up 36% of the electorate, and almost 60% voted for Obama; but in this year’s midterms they made up only 26% of all voters. Moreover, demographics have been steadily shifting in the Democrats’ favor: every four years, the electorate in presidential elections is 2% more non-white – voters who consistently support Democrats by outsize margins.
Second, many of the tactics that Republicans used to boost their vote this year will undermine their chances in 2016. Many Republican candidates this year campaigned on their opposition to immigration liberalization, a position that appeals to the “base” Republican voters who tend to turn out in midterm election years. Yet that position may produce larger Democratic margins in 2016 from Hispanics – the fastest growing part of the electorate, and one that is pivotal in swing presidential states, such as Florida.
Third, even if Democrats lost this year, it is notable that their agenda did not. In a large number of states – including some conservative states like South Dakota and Arkansas – voters approved ballot initiatives in support of progressive causes, such as raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, expanding background checks for gun purchases, placing restrictions on oil-shale “fracking,” and protecting abortion rights.
Fourth, by 2016, it will be much harder for Republicans to blame their Democratic rivals for economic problems and legislative gridlock. By 2016, after two years of sole Republican control of Congress, voters may want to know why Republicans have not produced more change. Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have sent some early signals that they will pursue accommodation with Obama, the more radical “Tea Party” elements of their party may well prevent any partisan détente. And it will be virtually impossible for the Republican majority to enact anything without Democratic cooperation, given the ability of just 40 Senators to block any legislation (the Democrats will have at least 46), and Obama’s ability to veto any legislation he opposes.
Fifth, the slate of Senate seats that happen to be up for election in 2016 (only one third of the 100 seats are up for election every two years) will be far more promising for Democrats. This year, Democrats were defending Senate seats in 7 states that Mitt Romney had carried in 2012. In 2016, Republicans will be defending Senate seats in 7 states that Obama carried in 2012 - with no Democrats having to defend seats in Republican states.
Finally, although the presidential contest promises to be close, as it has been in the past two elections, Republicans will likely have to endure a long and contentious nomination process, while Democrats may avoid a divisive internal fight by uniting relatively early around Hillary Clinton as their standard bearer.
All this suggests that 2016 will not be a replay of 2014, and that Democrats should be well positioned to retain the White House and reclaim some of the ground they lost in Congress. Yet the underlying forces that drove Democratic losses this year – especially middle class resentment over stagnant wages and extreme political gridlock – will likely continue to be challenges for both parties for years to come.
Jeremy Rosner is Executive Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a global consultancy on public opinion research and campaign management. Rosner leads the company's international campaign practice and has advised dozens of world leaders, including President Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Victor Yushchenko, and President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Brian Paler is a Senior Associate at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, where he provides strategic advice to international campaigns, corporations and organizations.
Led by Jeremy Rosner, executive vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, GQR Global Political Update is a platform for expert international campaign consultants to analyze new global trends, challenges, and developments in their field.
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