US midterm elections: More than just a prelude

US midterm elections: More than just a prelude

Just days before America’s mid-term election, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at some of the issues and circumstances dominating the election on 4 November.

To some, this mid-term election coming up on Tuesday, 4 November, in America is just a prelude to the main event to be held in two years’ time when the country troops back to the polling stations to elect a new president. But this year’s election – largely sans presidential contenders – will determine just how tough the last two years of Barack Obama’s second administration will be in Washington’s political bear pit. And it may well set the stage for the ways the candidates will grapple with issues that come to the forefront in that election just two years away.

While the presidency is not up for grabs officially, a third of the Senate is, as are all 435 members of the House of Representatives, along with 45 governorships and the members of 36 state legislatures, along with innumerable mayoral races, city councils – and 147 referenda on various state ballots. Most controversial, perhaps, is the “personhood” referendum in Tennessee that would grant “personhood” to any foetus from the union of sperm and egg. (Such a law would almost certainly be overturned in the courts, but it has significant emotional power.)

From among the seats in the Senate up for re-election this year, Republicans would need a net improvement in their caucus of six to gain undisputed control of the Senate. Assuming Kentucky Republican Senator (and Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell wins re-election and the Republicans gain a clear majority of the seats in the Senate, McConnell would become that truly powerful political figure in the US. This would be the case despite the fact it is a good bet not one American in a million would likely recognise him if he sat down next to them in a subway, bus, bar or restaurant.

Beyond the actual candidates and referenda up for voting by those who cast ballots, this election will give politicians, political strategists, and commentators chances to divine something about America’s current state of mind and its temperament – and inevitably as it gives any clarity going forward towards 2016. Doing this on the basis of electoral results and projecting them forward into the future may not be as easy as it may seem. Early on for this election, a number of issues threatened to be key drivers, only for them to fade significantly in the home stretch. These have included, among others: citizen annoyances about and dissembling (by its critics) about the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare); the flow of illicit child migrants across the Rio Grande from Central America; revelations about some seriously substandard care in veterans’ medical facilities; the racial conflict in Ferguson, Missouri and its larger implications that stemmed from a police shooting of a black teenager; the jihadists’ beheading of Americans in IS-controlled territory and the difficult fight against IS; and now, most recently, the public hysteria over the possibility Ebola Fever might spread across the US. These have all been part of these recurring waves of issues that at various points seemed to threaten to become the election’s central playmaker in 2014.

But, in fact, according to many observers, the real constant in this mid term election year has been a broad sense of frustration with the man in the White House, rather than a debilitating anger over any of those specific game-changer issues. Something like two-thirds of Americans, according to the polls, say their nation is on the wrong track – and that, by inference, is a critique the president is failing to lead. The “no drama Obama” narrative has thus been overtaken by a sense that the president reacts rather than being proactive in dealing with the nation’s problems.

In fact, a mid-term election is often – but not always – tough on the president’s party. The cumulative resentments and disappointments generate a spanking at the polls for an incumbent president’s party. Bill Clinton stands as the only president since World War II not to lose Senate seats in the mid-term election during his second term, although that must be tempered by the fact an unusually large number of Senate Democrats had been beaten during his first term and so a comeback was possible.

Staying with the Big Dawg for just a minute more, Clinton has been cited for the observation that it is the economy that trumps pretty much everything else in American elections. For 2014, the nation’s economy is like a pot simmering slowly in the background. On the one hand, while growth to the nation’s economy has returned, unemployment continues to fall, and consumer confidence is at a seven-year high point; surveys also say the voters in many households feel hemmed in and insecure about both the present – and for the future.

And the electoral calendar is particularly tough on the Democrats this time around as well. The Senate seats up for election this year are the ones that were last on the ballot in 2008, the year Obama swept into office, giving the Democrats several Senate seats that had frequently been held by Republicans. This time around, these very seats are being defended when the same president is largely unable to campaign effectively for those senators under pressure of losing their posts, given his general lack of popularity across the land. (See map from The Economist.)

brooks US map

As for the Republicans’ hoped-for six-seat gain to take control of the Senate, they can almost certainly count on capturing Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota from Democratic side of the aisle, leaving just three more to cross their magic threshold, assuming they don’t lose any of their own seats up for grabs as well. Consider that North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska all voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and would thus seem to be within their reach as well. The Democrats may hold on in North Carolina and perhaps even Alaska, but the Republicans will likely win Iowa – as well as Colorado or New Hampshire.

Still, the Democrats may just possibly hold on to their majority by the slenderest of margins – but it will take a lot of things to go their way simultaneously – pretty much against the prevailing electoral winds. They may yet gain an upset in Georgia with candidate Michelle Nunn, the daughter of long-time Senator Sam Nunn, against businessman David Perdue. And an independent candidate may win in Kansas, while incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu may do just well enough to end up facing one of two conservative Republicans in a further run-off election and then win a second time. But there is, intriguingly, the chance that if Landrieu’s seat becomes the one that decides which party controls the Senate, the country will not know how the election has turned out until after a December run-off election for that Louisiana Senate seat.

Of course, the ultimate result depends on who votes – and who doesn’t. Mid-term elections usually draw significantly lower voter turnouts than presidential elections and so one of the real keys to victory is getting a candidate’s truly engaged supporters actually to the polling place to cast their votes. As a result, an integral part of the plan has been to hammer away in television advertising, telephone campaigning and in speeches in a repetitive pitch – hoping to make a sufficient impression to sway voters or get their own supporters revved up enough to do the deed. As the Economist noted, “Republicans attack Democrats as Barack Obama’s playmates; Democrats warn darkly about Republican extremists in the pockets of billionaires. Low turnout hurts Democrats. Polling suggests that conservatives are more excited about voting than liberals.”

Still, despite Republican efforts to “nationalise” the election around the policies, personality and characteristics of the president, most congressional elections (to say nothing of gubernatorial races) remain stubbornly local in character as a function of the American electoral system. Candidates, not a party, are the key and candidates can vary significantly in their appeals and positions, state by state – even to the point of opposing policies of an incumbent president of their party if it is tactically or strategically useful – or even in accord with their actual principles. And sometimes the dynamic in a state takes on a unique character of its own. The race in Kansas has now been thoroughly upset by independent candidate Greg Orman, a candidate who may possibly just scrape by to win that senatorial seat.

And so, if the Republicans actually seize control of the Senate, the Washington dynamic of “gridlock” is unlikely to change all that much. Whatever legislation the Republicans pass in both houses of Congress will still have to go the president for signature or a veto. Republicans have made a big show of pushing for major changes in the Affordable Care Act – but given the law’s place as one of the Obama administration’s signature accomplishments, it will be a long time before he agrees to major changes in it. Similarly, Congress, on its own, is unlikely to be able to force the president’s hand in foreign policy or defence issues, even though it will be able to make it even tougher for the president than things have already been over budgetary decisions.

But one thing is certain – by 5 November, the focus of every politician in Washington (and for most across the country) will be on what happens a year later as the presidential campaign begins in earnest. Then there will be that long march through the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary election, and all those other primaries, as part of the long, hard slog towards the nominating conventions and then the election itself.

As for the Republicans, there is actually only one presumed candidate for the presidential nomination facing the voters in this election – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker has had a rocky tenure so far, facing a recall vote and incurring the ire of Democrats across the country for his stance in limiting the areas of action for government employee unions. None of the other potential serious candidates, people like Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul; Governors Mike Pence, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Perry; and ex-Governor Jeb Bush, will face the voters this time around. As a result, they and their aides will be parsing the precinct by precinct and attitude survey data from this 2014 election as a way of figuring out what themes resonated with voters, what key issues motivated voters to come to the voting booths, and what topics may serve as crucial for their own coalescing campaign hopes, going forward.

Republican Party strategists and consultants Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse have argued that despite the likely win for their party in 2014, even gaining control of the Senate will not disguise their party’s demographic weaknesses for the longer haul. As the two men wrote in the Washington Post, “Democrats like to accuse Republicans of being bad at science, but in fact we’re really bad at math. Winning in a non-presidential-turnout year, when older and white voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate, should convince no one that we’ve fixed our basic shortfalls with key electoral groups, including minorities and younger voters.

Assuming that the Democrats replicate their 2012 electoral success with minority voters two years from now, and assuming that Hispanics grow as a percentage of the overall electorate, which they will, we calculate that Democrats will already have almost half (24 percent) of the votes they need to win a majority of Americans in 2016. To win 50.1 percent of the popular vote, we estimate, Republicans will need nearly 64 percent of the white vote — which would be a record for a non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate. Remember, Mitt Romney and John McCain won 59 percent and 55 percent of the white vote, respectively; and even in victory, George W. Bush took only 58 percent of the white vote in 2004. With the exception of candidates such as Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Republicans have hardly focused on courting minority votes in 2014.

Further, there is little evidence that GOP prospects are improving with younger voters, especially younger women. We can no longer depend on voters 45 and older to carry Republican candidates to victory (Romney won voters 40 and older, but still lost the election.)”

And, of course, in the other camp, Hillary Clinton (and just maybe Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren) will also be doing pretty much the same thing – with the added wrinkle that she must figure out how to convince voters she represents the Democratic Party’s traditions and positions, even as she stands separate and apart from her own party’s incumbent president. (Hmm… There, The Daily Maverick has just caught the same speculative bug for 2016 as well. And it is contagious, too.) DM

Photo: 2014 Elections illustration by RAND corporation.

Read more:

  • When Conspiracy Theories Don’t Fit the Media Narrative -Why haven’t Joni Ernst’s flirtation with Agenda 21 or Tom Cotton’s ideas about ISIS gotten more attention?, a column by Norman Orenstein in The Atlantic;

  • The mid-term elections – What they’re all about at the Economist

  • GOP gains steam at;

  • 2014 election central [a complete rundown] at;

  • Republicans appear set to take control of Senate, but hope remains for Democrats at the Washington Post

  • Yes, Republicans will take the Senate. But here’s a GOP reality check, a column by Republican strategists Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse in the Washington Post

  • Political heavyweights campaigning as vote nears at the AP

  • The silent centre – If moderates don’t vote next week, extremists will thrive at the Economist

  • State ballot measures: 5 things to watch [a run-down of key referenda on various state ballots] at the AP


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