A Surprising Unsurprising Election

We could call 2014 a surprising unsurprising election. Republican gains proved larger than most anticipated. But there were few shockers in statewide races; instead, Republicans simply won most of the competitive contests. For all the talk of anti-incumbency, only three sitting governors lost. The bigger surprise was the number of controversial governors who won re-election: Rick Scott (R-FL), Scott Walker (R-WI), Rick Snyder (R-MI), Sam Brownback (R-KS), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Dan Malloy (D-CT). The ultimate outcome was not out of line with one would expect in a midterm election with a fairly unpopular Democratic president. (I was part of an APSA discussion where we all commented on how Democrats were outperforming the fundamentals. In the end, the fundamentals won). It was also consistent with the long-run tendency towards a nationalized and partisan politics where individual personalities and geographic quirks matter less and the (D) or (R) after a candidate’s name counts for everything.

Presidential Job Approval is the Queen of Short-Term Political Data

Besides 2014 being a midterm election, the most important element in the political environment was Barack Obama’s job approval rating of 42 percent. As Sean Trende pointed out months in advance, presidential job approval has a strong impact on congressional elections, especially for candidates of the president’s party. Particularly in this nationalized era, it’s hard to win votes from voters who disapprove of the president’s performance. This year, even relatively strong Democratic candidates had difficulty overcoming the drag from the White House.

Some of the coverage of Obama’s job approval described it as plummeting. Actually, if one looks at the Huffington Post Pollster average, Obama’s popularity has changed littleover the past year. Almost all of his decline from the peak of the 2012 election occurred in the eight months after his second inaugural – before the famously botched launching of HealthCare.gov. While this fall coincided with a steep drop in Obama’s rating on foreign policy (which has continued to slide), I’m inclined to read it as the disappearance of an unsustainable honeymoon. Ultimately, Barack Obama’s approval rating just doesn’t move around that much. It is striking, not for its lows, since most presidents have had periods in the 40s, but for its lack of highs. He hasn’t experienced a rally, as was experienced by George W. Bush after 9/11 and George H. W. Bush during the Iraq War. Nor has he presided over an economic boom, as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan did in their second terms. Obama’s job approval hasn’t exceeded 60 percent since April 2009, or 55 percent since that July.

What does this mean for 2016? I’m not sure. I think it could be challenging for a Democratic presidential candidate to win under these circumstances, especially since the party has already controlled the White House for two terms. Could Obama’s job approval increase? The wave of good economic news suggests that it could happen; presumably, at some point, Americans will start feeling the improvements in their own lives. Perhaps the international scene will calm down as well. Maybe his approval rating will rise into the mid-40s or even the high 40s. But is it too late? All things being equal, presidents tend to see their approval ratings fall as their administrations age. And Obama’s approval rating has shown a certain imperturbability. Much like attitudes toward his most distinctive accomplishment, the public’s views of Obama may be built more on the rock of partisanship and ideology than on the sands of events.

Minor-Party Candidates Tend to Fade on Election Day
Sean Haugh, the Libertarian pizza deliveryman running for Senate in North Carolina, saw his support fall from 9 percent in July to 5 percent on election eve to 3.75 percent on Election Day. Something similar happened to his Libertarian compatriot, Amanda Swofford of Georgia, and to Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler in Maine. As the election approaches, Duverger’s Law tends to take over. Even Greg Orman, the Independent who had become the de facto Democratic nominee for Senate in Kansas, flopped on Election Day. Presumably, Kansas Republicans realized that Orman actually was the de facto Democrat.

Southern White Democrats Are A Dying Breed

Nobody doubts that Colorado and Iowa remain competitive states (Colorado re-elected a Democratic governor), nobody thinks that Illinois and Massachusetts and Maryland do not remain strongly Democratic states despite electing Republican governors (which all of these states had done before over the past decade or two). But after last week’s results, what ambitious Democrat will want to run statewide in the South? (Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida are exceptions). Moderate, well-respected Democrats like Mark Pryor and Michelle Nunn found themselves losing to imperfect Republicans by large margins. Repeating a pattern seen in 1994 and 2010, Southern Democrats are no longer able to run significantly ahead of the national party. The long Republican march through the South is now tramping through the state houses, with the GOP in control of every state legislature in the former Confederacy. I’m not one to put much stock in arguments about a party’s “bench,” but one wonders how many ambitious young Southern politicians will want to pursue careers in the Democratic Party. It’s likely that the next Republican president will have some point when he is unpopular, allowing Democrats to make gains. But even then, the South is likely to remain heavily Republican, as long as it is the nation’s most conservative region.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner teaches at the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University and is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections. He tweets at @richardmskinner.