No One Election Should Be Interpreted in Isolation

Commentators:

Nov. 5, 2014: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Obama failed! It’s Red America!”
Nov. 7, 2012: “Democrats win! Republicans are doomed! Romney’s 47 percent misstep! Latino voters!”
Nov. 3, 2010: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Obama overreached! Tea Party!”
Nov. 5, 2008: “Democrats win! Republicans are doomed! Palin was a joke! Realignment!”
Nov. 8, 2006: “Democrats win! Republicans are doomed! Bush finally pays for failure in Iraq!”
Nov. 3, 2004: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Kerry never should have let himself be videotaped windsurfing! Values voters!”
Nov. 6, 2002: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Voters back Bush’s tough stand on Iraq!”

Political scientists:

Presidents tend to win re-election (2004, 2012), but they are more likely to lose the longer their party has been in power (1992, 1952, 1948). Presidents’ parties tend to lose seats in midterm elections (2006, 2010, 2014). The party that controls the White House also tends to do very poorly when the economy is bad (2008, 2010), and better when the economy is doing better (1972, 1964, 1984). If we look closer, we can see a lot of other systematic patterns, as well as revealing trends. No one election can or should be interpreted in isolation.

This is not to say that everything commentators are writing today is wrong. Midterm elections are, to a surprising degree, referenda on the president’s party. That’s why they tend to lose. If Obama had been as popular this year as Bush was one year after 9/11, Democrats might have done better this year. And Latino voters are moving away from the Republican Party, and the Tea Party probably did have an effect in 2010. And with elections as close as they have often been, myriad small things might well have made a difference.

But the thing to remember after any election is that these broad forces are always in play. And they affect the basic balance of advantage and disadvantage in the election. The 2008 election, with the economy at its lowest point in many voters’ lives, was a year for the Democrats. But this election, with most Senate elections in states where Obama lost to Romney, was the Republicans’ election to win. You don’t need to add much to explain that.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Hans Noel

Hans Noel is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.