The election postmortems all suggest that 2014 is the year of the Republican resurgence, backlash against the President and a rejection of politics as usual in Washington. Maybe the next two years—the last of the Obama administration—will confirm this. But, for now, the election data reveal that this was an election that tells us very little about political change in the United States.
The Democrats should have done much better. Historically, a good economy works in favor of the President’s party. Sure, there are many economic indicators out there. But, those that appeal to folks should have resulted in a much better showing for the Democrats. Gas prices are low and continue to fall. The Dow and S&P 500 are up nearly 100% over the last 5 years. Unemployment has dropped from about 8 to about 6%. The positive economic data abound. But, the Democrats suffered huge losses.
Instead, polls consistently indicate that voters are preoccupied with economic fears. They distrust government and want change. Yet, they voted in record low numbers. Current estimates suggest that turnout nationwide will be about 37%. That’s low even for a midterm election—and the lowest since the Second World War. While ushering Republicans into governors’ seats and state legislatures across the nation, voters wasted their time in congressional races where pundits ranging from Charlie Cook to the Center for Voting and Democracy estimated that some 370 seats (85%) in the House were either completely safe for the incumbent or, worse blowouts. In Virginia, turnout matched the national average of about 37% and the winners in congressional elections in the commonwealth all polled about 60% or better. This is hardly the stuff of competitive democracy.
As pundits and pollsters now turn to focus on who will run for president in 2016, we see the indicators of the political disarray that has characterized the nation for some time. Polls suggest that nearly a dozen Republicans are viable contenders for the party’s nomination. Some would say this is a good thing—a triumph of democracy. It’s also a manifestation of a lack of focus and the absence of a political center for the party. If we look at the heirs to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, the list includes names such as McCain, Palin, Romney, Huckaby, Ryan, Christie, Paul…. Plot those characters on a partisan map and see if you can find a point that represents a coherent ideological center. It is not there.
Looking then, towards 2016, we see that 2014 is much ado about very little. Low turnout and voter malaise hardly translate into an endorsement of a coherent GOP agenda or response to the President. The GOP ran a brilliant campaign against an unpopular president on a district-by-district level. But, this is easy compared to the challenge of mounting a coordinated, coherent national campaign in support of one political standard bearer for a party that suffers from deep divisions.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is the clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination.
Looking to an election between Hillary Clinton and the standard bearer for a very divided Republican party, it is difficult to discern the issues over which the campaign will be fought. Neither party offers a coherent message to the voters. The Democrats, under Obama, took back the presidency under banners of “hope” and “yes we can”. The GOP mounted an opposition that responds, essentially, with assertions of “no you won’t” in the absence of any other coherent vision of proactive governing.
One wonders why such a system fails to beget meaningful political change. Perhaps America really is too big to fail and, as a result, a politics of unbeatable incumbents and voter frustration will continue to characterize the nation. The rules governing campaign spending, the gerrymandering of legislative districts and the costs of running for office all erect tremendous hurdles to those who would look to bring about systematic change. That’s why we can have an election in which 85% of the Congress is returned to office unscathed and, yet, polls indicate that voters want change in Washington.